I have been in a bit of a creative hiatus for a while so when I saw a friend’s Facebook status this morning I decided to use it as a writing prompt and I wrote this short story. I am going to challenge myself to write something every day. Let’s see how I go.
Panties on the Line
The combination of morning sun and wind creates shaky stripes on the wall as the light comes through the slats of the bedroom blind. I forgot to close it properly again last night (every night), and the flickering penetrates my closed eyelids, developing my hangover even further. Now it is a pounding headache, a metal and bitter aftertaste, a swollen shut throat, and pulsing on the inside of my eyeballs. The rest of my body feels strangely dislocated and I am almost grateful.
Images of stumbling up the stairs, fumbling for and dropping the front door key, falling over when bending to pick it up, and sitting on the icy cement of the corridor come back to me in flashes.
Oh god, Dawn in the next apartment had opened her door a crack, leaving the chain on, but peering through, so all I had seen was an eye and the daisies on her flannel pyjamas. She had clicked her tongue and double slammed the door, making a point of her disapproval.
Weekend drinking is my habit that friends, family, and even strange unfriendly neighbours are having to get used to. I roll over and the duvet offers up a sick sweet smell of me.
The hiss of the wind pushing through the crack of the window pane becomes more annoying than the flickering stripes of light. I am going to have to get up and do something. Pull the window more shut and stuff the folded envelope in the crack, twirl the stick that shuts the blinds more. I can’t get up. I can’t fall asleep again. I am disgusting. Disgusted. I sit and then stand up.
My knee. My knee for goddamnfucksakes. I hobble to the window. I have absolutely no recollection of doing anything to my knee.
I twirl the stick. I twirl it the wrong way and the slats are suddenly entirely open, parallel to the world and offering an uninterrupted view of beyond. Blinding light, I pun to myself. I am clearly not dead yet. I pull the damn string and the blind goes up, to the top and smacking the dry leaves of the almost dead delicious monster on the way.
I look around the room. I had managed to crawl out of my shoes and jeans, all lumped together in a pile on the floor next to my bed, but I had slept in my t-shirt, and bra. My reflection looks back at me from the window glass. Hair all standing up on the one side of my head, red crease marks, like welts, on my cheek and chin, and my frown line deep, with what looks like ash embedded in it. On impulse I push open the window, the best way to not see myself.
Staring back at me from between her giant old-lady panties hanging on her balcony washing line is auntie Elise. She drops the pair she is hanging, disappears as she bends to pick it up, clearly hoping I haven’t seen her, and does a slow-motion, almost impossible for her age, creep back up. Our eyes lock and even from across the busy Sea Point road that separates us, I see her scorn and pity.
My divorce story is so predictable and mundane (cheating husband confesses true real life love affair for online dalliance and leaves me stranded), and my response to it so typical (despair, thoughts of revenge but too immobile to actualise them, drinking), it feels like auntie Elise is the only, tiny unlikeliness in all of it. She is Peter’s mom’s sister. Peter is my ex. I had no idea, when I rented this flat in a haze of brokenness and betrayal, that the bedroom window would open out directly across the way from auntie Elise’s balcony. I had no idea that she would witness my slow deflation into a used balloon person, and I would see her Sunday panties.
Auntie Elise washes and hangs her panties every Sunday. She hangs 14 pairs of these giant bloomers, in varying shades of ex-colours. Mostly it is a kind of grey that unifies them. And their shape and size. I cannot get my head around auntie Elise’s panties. They take up her entire double laundry line on her balcony. They are never accompanied by anything else. Not a sock, or pair of pantyhose, or a bra ever makes an appearance on the line, ever. Why does a person need to wash 14 pairs of giant panties every week? That is two a day. What makes it ok to hang out one’s range of knickers on a balcony for the entire world to see?
She catches me staring. I don’t know what happens. I shout, “Oh, voetsek!” and turn back inside to put the kettle on. It is pointless. I have no coffee, or tea, or milk or sugar in the flat. On weekdays I get my caffeine fix at the office, at my delightful job of office assistant to a couple of estate agent sisters. Aside from doing the phone, email and advertising, I am also there to prevent them from killing each other. The job is punishment for my sins. I was a stay at home married person, and now I am a depressed divorced slave. On Saturdays and Sundays I have to go out to put anything in my mouth, liquid or solid. I need to wait for my face to settle down before I leave today though.
I find myself back at the window. Across the way is Auntie Elise, stock still and open mouthed. Her face is framed by two pairs of her panties, like puppet show booth curtains.
Staring at her, I fumble for my jacket with my foot, goddamnmotherofaknee, drag it towards me and fetch it from the floor. I am looking for my cigarettes and a lighter. Even though I cannot remember most of last night I am certain I would have had the foresight or intelligence to leave a few cigarettes for the morning. I find the lighter and then my heart jumps as I feel the hard edges of a cigarette box. I open it without looking. Nothing. Empty. I managed to keep an empty cigarette box. Pathetic.
As if she could read my mind, and then punish me, auntie Elise brings a lit cigarette to her lips and draws on it hard. I feel a wave of irrational rage and bite the inside of my cheek.
What I know about auntie Elise. Never married older sister of Maude, my ex mother-in-law. They are not close, which is why I didn’t even know she lived in the block across the road from the flat when I rented it. The story goes that auntie Elise changed the whole library system at the Sea Point library in the eighties by letting the young black foreign children come in, take refuge and read, much to the horror of the ancient white miseries who would gather there in the winter when it was too wet to stand around and gossip on the promenade. She was fired when one of the old miseries complained to the Jewish Board of Deputies that she had said something anti-Semitic. Nobody believed that she had, but nobody would stick up for her either. To this day a few black children, now grown and with children of their own, make their way up to her flat to visit.
While I am thinking I have relaxed my gaze on auntie Elise, but a movement draws me back to her. Her panties are shaking, like curtains, like sails, with the front washing line sagging sharply in the middle. I see auntie Elise’s hands now, pulling on the line, and her head wobbling up and down on her neck. Now the line is under her chin somehow, and her mouth is opening and closing like a fish. What is she doing to me I think, before realising that something is terribly, hideously wrong and I start looking for my phone, which should be but isn’t in my jacket pocket. It is a miracle that I see it lying on the floor, half under my jeans. It is the first time in eight months that I call Peter.
It is now later and I am in auntie Elise’s flat, staring back at my window, past the balcony and across the road. Auntie Elise’s stroke had brought me and Peter into the same room, after eight months of silence and shame and hate. We had waited together for the ambulance and the paramedics who whisked her away. Peter left in his car, following her to the hospital.
I open the balcony door; I don’t know why, and I straighten and tighten the washing line. Now I put the fallen panties back up, just like they were, upside down, with pegs at the leg elastic, and evenly spaced.