It takes Sarah and Felix a long time to get back to London, after. Too many memories. They spend months passing the idea back and forth – we should go, for her, she’d want it, we should see it, we should stomp it clean again – but months pass and they don’t go. And then they do go. And then they’re there, and it hurts like a bitch.
They’re in a different part of town – near Battersea Park, the fields and the trees washed out by night into something dark and intimate. Sarah keeps her hands shoved into her pockets and tries not to let the hushed conversations she keeps hearing make her ache. They do anyways. God, she misses S; it’s a constant solid pain but it’s back now strong like a toothache. Next to her Fe laces his arm with hers and he gets it, she knows he does.
And then he says “ooh” and he’s dragging her, so, maybe not. “Oi,” she says, “why’re we runnin’? There a sale on hair gel or somethin’?”
“I’m surprised you even understand the concept of hair gel,” Felix says, “and no. Look at that.”
Sarah looks at that. That is an art gallery; Felix is beelining towards it steadily, tugging Sarah by the arm. It’s not that big of a gallery. Maybe it is? Sarah doesn’t know shit about galleries. This one has too many people in it. God, she’d just wanted to be alone in the dark.
“Fe—” she starts, and Felix begs “five minutes” and drops her arm. They’re inside, now, and her brother has vanished, and Sarah is alone. Except she’s not alone; it feels like everyone in the room is staring at her. She hunches her shoulders, pulls off her gloves and unzips her jacket and pretends she knows shit about art. She’s conned enough people in her life, she should be able to convincingly pretend she understands this for five minutes.
She stares at a painting. It looks like panic. Or maybe it’s just because she’s panicked; maybe that’s why she moves from painting to painting and every single one of them looks like either anger or fear. White-black-red. Twisted thin shapes, like necks stretched out too long. Sarah likes Fe’s stuff because it’s just – it’s the world, but through a Fe-lens. It’s how he sees things. This is too abstract to be anything. Sarah doesn’t get it, and wishes it didn’t itch at some deep awful fear in her.
She moves through the gallery and each piece of art makes her more and more afraid. Eyes scratching along her face and her shoulders and her fidgeting hands. People whispering to each other. Classical music. Sarah stares blankly at a vaguely feather-like pattern on a canvas, tries to resist the urge to rip it to pieces with her teeth.
When she turns her head to the side, Rachel is staring at her.
For a moment Sarah thinks oh god I’m drunk and then she remembers that Rachel isn’t dead – despite Sarah’s best efforts – and also she’s sober. Rachel is Sarah’s ghost, but she is not Sarah’s ghost. The two of them stare at each other, and it just goes on.
“Sarah,” Rachel says. The amount of cracks in those two syllables is obscene. Her mouth is slightly parted. “Look at you,” she says, soft.
And Sarah is doing it: looking. She is trying to find something in Rachel she can latch onto and hate, but she can’t. Rachel isn’t even wearing a skirt suit, just a black sweater that looks soft and thin black trousers. Her lipstick is pink. Fuck, Sarah thinks, and looks away again.
“Rachel,” she says, staring as hard as she can at the painting. Fear, fear, fear. “Didn’t know you were—” she stops. “Didn’t know you liked art,” she says instead, lamely.
“You’re in London,” Rachel says.
“You’re in London.”
“I live here,” Rachel says, voice strained somewhere between amused and baffled and deeply, monstrously sad. “I thought you were in Toronto.”
“Just visiting,” Sarah says. Oh, god, she’s going to have to ask how Rachel is – only she doesn’t have to, because a man has appeared out of nowhere to politely murmur something or other at Rachel. His eyes are on Sarah the entire time. Oh. That explains it, why everyone was watching her. If Rachel was here. Sarah should have recognized the way they were all staring, but – it’s been such a long time.
The man leaves. “Boyfriend,” Sarah says.
“Gallery director,” Rachel says.
Rachel studies the painting. “What do you think,” she says.
“Makes me feel like shit,” Sarah says bluntly.
“Well,” Rachel says, “that’s the point.” While she is looking at the painting Sarah looks at her, again. Rachel’s eyes are tracing over the painting, but one of them is lagging behind – glass. Glass eye. No more fancy biotech, just glass. Sarah stares at the feathers again and realizes that they’re actually sad, and hates them for it. She wishes Felix were standing next to her instead of Rachel, wishes he was whispering something to her that made this whole thing made sense.
“I shouldn’t be here,” Sarah says suddenly. “This is – yeah. I’m – yeah. Hope you’re – happy—” and she turns to go, but Rachel’s hand is wrapped around her wrist. Tight, like a vice.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she says, voice low and urgent and angry. “But. Since you are.” She lets go of Sarah’s wrist slowly, like Sarah is an animal that will startle. Something with feathers. Sarah feels like that, like something with feathers. She feels like she’s in a house of mirrors, all these paintings and Rachel with Sarah’s face open and terrified.
“There’s a bar down the street,” Rachel says. “Would you.”
God, Sarah could use a drink. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, al—alright, yeah, fine.” She rocks back onto one of her feet. “I’m gonna – I came here with Fe, I have to tell him.”
“Don’t tell him.”
“Not that,” Sarah says, and ducks into the crowd. It takes her minutes of searching to find her brother, frowning at a canvas like he can pick it apart with his eyes.
“It’s about escape, I think,” he says, the second Sarah is next to him. He doesn’t look at her. He’s staring at the cracked, spiderweb fractal at the center of the canvas, the one bleeding like circuitry through the ring of blue around the black center. “Shattering the mirror of yourself, or some such bollocks.” He looks at Sarah. “Let me guess, you’re miserable and going off to do something awful and dangerous instead of accepting my desperate attempts to culture you?”
“Yeah,” Sarah says. “Basically.” She leans forward and hugs him, tight, claps her arm on his back once. He lets her – because this is London, because he’s her brother. “I promise I’m trying not to do anything stupid,” she says.
“I know,” Felix says quietly. “I know you’re trying.” Sarah lets him go, and then heads back towards the canvas she was standing at before. Part of her thinks, sick and hopeful, that Rachel will have vanished by the time she got there. That Sarah just – made her up, somehow, and now she’ll be gone.
But of course she isn’t, because she wouldn’t be Rachel Duncan if she ever did what Sarah wanted. She’s still standing there, only now she’s talking to a woman about her height. (Sarah’s height.) (Their height.) Their heads are bowed together. A hand on Rachel’s arm. Oh, Sarah thinks, and skids to a halt – but it’s too late, they’ve both seen her. Sarah watches mute panic flash across Rachel’s face and wants to say no, I wouldn’t, not for this, but she doesn’t think Rachel would believe her and she doesn’t know if she would believe herself. So Sarah awkwardly lopes the rest of the distance, shoves a hand through her hair like it will make it any less – what it is.
“Hey,” she says.
“Jeanette,” Rachel says, “this is Sarah. My…” she stops. Jeanette reaches out a hand and Sarah shakes it. She’s pretty. Dark hair pulled into a braid around her neck. A necklace on a thin silver chain. Tall boots. Sarah shakes her hand, and tries not to let her face do anything. When it’s done she shoves her hands back in her pockets, curls her fingers around the empty space in her palm.
Jeanette turns to Rachel, says something in a singsong language Sarah doesn’t speak. Rachel talks back – Jeanette says something – Rachel smiles, a soft tender curl of a thing. Sarah is already on her back foot again, isn’t she. Of course she is. Jeanette leans forward and kisses Rachel, once, on the mouth, and then Rachel has her fingertips in the small of Sarah’s back and is guiding her towards the door.
“Thought you were more for the…” Sarah says, miming a whip motion with her hand, immediately hating herself for it.
“Have you considered,” Rachel says, “that you don’t actually know anything about me.”
“I know too much about you,” Sarah says, and they’re outside. That sentence would have been fine if they were still in the gallery, but now they’re outside in the dark and it’s just true.
Rachel doesn’t answer. She must have grabbed her scarf on the way out because she’s looping it around her neck and tying it in practiced motions. Sarah puts her gloves back on. In the dark it’s easier. In the dark she is thinking about Beth again.
“Am I gonna have to worry about you dragging me off somewhere to stab me, then,” she says, realizing partway through that she’d intended it as – god help her – a joke, and also that it absolutely did not work as a joke.
Silence for a moment. Sarah listens to the sound of people who love each other murmuring in the dark, and then Rachel says “God” in a voice that’s small and quiet. She laughs. It doesn’t sound like she’s amused by anything.
“How—” she says, and stops. “How have you not changed, Sarah Manning? How has this not changed you? How do you go through everything and still manage to be the exact same un—
“No,” she says, after a while. “No, Sarah, you don’t have to worry about me.”
“You don’t know shit about if I’ve changed,” Sarah says. “You don’t know a bloody thing.”
“I don’t,” Rachel says, acknowledging. She stops them in front of a building with a sign Sarah can’t read in the dark. Inside the bar is dark, warm, completely lacking in dark glass. Rachel orders wine. Sarah orders bourbon, and thinks about Cosima, and swallows the bourbon. They sit at a table in the back. Sarah keeps on swallowing the bourbon, and knows Cosima is written all over her face; when she looks up Rachel is staring at it, hungry. The dim light sparks off her left eye.
“I know I’m not allowed to ask,” she says.
“You can ask,” Sarah says, voice rasping at the edges, and she’s out of bourbon. Rachel pushes her wine glass across the table. “I hate wine,” Sarah says, and drinks some of it. Pushes it back.
“What did Helena name her children,” Rachel says.
“Arthur,” Sarah says, “Donnie.” She feels sick and guilty the second the words are out of her mouth. She finds a napkin on the table and begins ripping it to pieces, smaller and smaller. “They’re good kids,” she says. “Helena’s a – a great mum. You wouldn’t believe it.” She looks at Rachel. “I mean. You wouldn’t. But you wouldn’t, yeah?”
Rachel isn’t looking at her; she’s staring at the wine, face settled into something unreadable. Sarah keeps going, emboldened by how easy it is to forget that Rachel’s there. “Alison and Donnie and the kids are off doing some yoga retreat shite,” she says. “Cosima and Delphine are out curing all the Ledas. But – you knew that. Didn’t you.”
After a few seconds of weathering Sarah’s stare, Rachel looks up and meets her eyes. “Your name wasn’t on the list,” Sarah says quietly.
“Oh, Sarah,” Rachel says. “Did you really think I’d put it there?”
Sarah’s eyes go to her bourbon but it’s empty, it’s still empty. She swallows in her dry mouth. “Kira remembers you,” she says. “What you did for her. She knows.”
I’m sorry, she thinks, but she can’t say it until Rachel says it. And Rachel, she knows, is not going to say she’s sorry.
“Oh,” Rachel says. She looks away again. People in the bar are giving them occasional looks, curious and wanting. It’s strange to feel allied with Rachel in this. I hate the way they look at me, Sarah could say, and Rachel could say I know and they’d smile at each other and mean it.
“I’m getting another drink,” Sarah says, and shoves up from her chair to go get it. At the bar she feels the weight of Rachel’s gaze touching her, and it doesn’t feel bad. Sarah has been watching Rachel too. When she snags another bourbon and sits down, it almost feels familiar.
“You live here now, then,” she says.
“Yes,” Rachel says. “For a few months, now. How long are you in town?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah says. “I – I don’t know. The week, maybe.”
Rachel sighs out through her nose. “Felix didn’t believe me,” she says quietly, “when I said I was sorry for your loss. I am.”
“What makes you think that’s why I’m here?”
Rachel doesn’t say anything. The realization that she understands feels like missing a step on the stairs – jarring, sudden, painful.
“You can piss off,” Sarah mutters into the rim of her glass. Rachel sighs again, looks around the bar. The brief warm feeling of camaraderie that Sarah had felt – with Rachel Duncan, of all people – has evaporated. Sarah feels the urge to hurt Rachel; it’s just as strong as the craving for bourbon she’d felt just a few moments ago. If she could just pull out Rachel’s hair. If she could smash Rachel’s fingers. If she could affect her.
“Are you happy,” Rachel says. Sarah thinks the word blurts and can’t quite make it stick. She blinks across the table and realizes that Rachel’s glass is, suddenly, empty. Are you happy.
“What the hell sort of question is that,” she says. “Are you?”
“I don’t know,” Rachel says, sounding slightly horrified. “Sometimes. I’m not sure how to tell. Do you understand?”
“Could you understand.”
The sound of an old video tape echoing through Rachel’s empty apartment.
“No,” Sarah says again, voice rough. She drinks more bourbon.
“Are you happy now, Sarah?” Rachel asks, eyes wide and sharp, voice insistent.
“Why does that matter to you?” Sarah says. She slaps the glass down. “What do you want to hear, that I’m miserable? That you won? That you’ve got London and your girlfriend and all the art you can buy and I’ve got shit? That make you feel good, Rachel? That all you need to be satisfied?”
Rachel: furious. Slithering around under her skin. “I want to know,” she hisses, “that I am not the only person in this story to not sail easily into her happy ending. Alison at her yoga retreat. Cosima and Delphine in some South American country. Helena babbling to her infants. Are you happy, Sarah.”
“Yeah,” Sarah spits back, desperate to believe in it. “Yeah, I am.”
The anger flickers out. “Good,” Rachel says quietly.
Somewhere a door slams, and Sarah’s not sure if it’s in this bar or in her head. For a second she can see a photo negative of herself push both their glasses aside, lean forward, say: I don’t really know how to get out of bed sometimes when I’m not going to fight someone, you know? Do you understand? Could you understand?
I don’t know if I’m happy either. You want to tell me how it feels when you think you’re happy? We could compare notes. You know I can’t even date anyone anymore, so congratulations on being better than me at that. When you kiss her does it feel like nothing? Is that good?
“And you’re happy sometimes,” Sarah mutters. “Really, more than you deserve.”
“What I appreciate about life, now,” Rachel says, “is that it doesn’t really matter what I deserve.”
“I could tell you,” Sarah says.
“You could,” Rachel says. Weirdly: she smiles, a puckered involuntary motion. “How would you like to write it down,” she says.
Sarah can’t help herself: she laughs, like a bark. “Shit,” she says, and then she’s laughing at the horror of it. “Shit,” she says, more quietly. “You know I think I missed you.”
“I’ve missed you,” Rachel says. “You’re all I have left of…” she sighs, and stops. Sarah watches Rachel watch their empty glasses. “It’s over,” Rachel says.
“Yeah,” Sarah says, “I know.”
Rachel reaches around her coat for her purse; she pulls out a clip, withdraws from it a single bone-white business card – a name, a phone number, a website. “I know,” she says, before Sarah can say anything. “But.” She puts it on the table, pushes it across with two fingertips. When Sarah looks at her she’s smiling, again, that smile Sarah wishes she could just wipe out.
“Warn me next time,” Rachel says, voice dry, and then she stands up and leaves the bar. Wait, Sarah thinks, desperate – wait – but Rachel doesn’t even turn around, doesn’t hesitate. Her shoulders are stiff, bearing disdainful. You’d never know – and then she is out the door and gone. Rachel is right: Sarah won’t call whatever number is on this card.
She imagines it. Photo negative Sarah, drunk in the soft intimate hours of the night, whispering into the phone. They’re all so happy, how are they all so happy—
Then she shoves the card into her pocket and leaves the bar. Outside, the stars are clear and cold.