Marlow spreads her legs under the desk. Her denim skirt keeps her knees from parting too much. I could just run outside, she thinks. Down the hallway, out the doors, away from the school. I don’t have to come back. This morning, she smoked her first cigarette. It’s her last, too. As the teacher talks about Joseph Conrad, she imagines getting laid on a boat, what it would feel like.
On the other side of the classroom, Andy writes in a notebook. He’s busy. Really busy. There is no way, he thinks, that the teacher would ever pick on him if he just looks busy. The words on the page are random, and they make him smile because they make no sense.
“Andrew, why is our main character going up the river?” the teacher asks.
Shit, he thinks, as the classroom looks at him. “Shit,” he says. Mouths open. The teacher stops.
But he’s committed now, he thinks. “Shit, Miss. Bradley. I think the main character is aware of his shitty, ordered existence and wants to be free from civilization. So he goes up the river, but what he finds is just more shit.”
Kids snicker. Andy sighs and keeps going, “Because people are shit, too, when you take away the rules that make them behave. They just turn into savages. That’s why Kurtz talks about horror in the end. He looked into himself and saw what he really was, when no one was looking. He was shit, Miss. Bradley. A big pile of shit at the end of the river.”
The bell, unfortunately, isn’t scheduled to ring for another ten minutes. Andy sits there, staring at the clock, wondering what more he can say, as everyone stares at him.
Andy doesn’t understand bacon. But that doesn’t mean he avoids eating it.
“It’s like you’re actually looking for an excuse to eat fat,” he says, as his colleagues drink coffee. “You’d be ashamed to go and order raw pig fat, right? No one does that. So you order bacon, because there’s just enough meat in it to make it look acceptable.”
Pham and Harold are tapping on their phones. Andy eats his bacon doused in egg yolk. Drinks more coffee. It’s an hour until their presentation.
When they get to the boardroom, there’s water at every seat. Muffins and scones on a platter in the middle. “Don’t eat them,” he tells his staff. “Makes us look greedy. Just drink water.” They take seats, and Harold connects a laptop to the television. Their presentation pops up. A few minutes later, the client group walks in. They’re in a hurry. Out of breath, like they ran here. Four men and three women, not even bothering to shake hands – but every one of them goes for a muffin or a scone.
Pham sits next to Andy. “Ready?”
Andy drinks his water. Let the sugar kick in, he says to the clients. Relax. You’re just here to listen to our pitch, and I know you’ll like it. You just will. You’ll love it so much that you’re going to hire us on the spot and not even bother to listen to the other firms that are pitching. Now and then, the client group looks at him – they know he’s the boss. They just get it, although it’s not like he has a label on his head declaring him as such. They’re waiting for him to start as everyone makes small talk, wondering why the boss hasn’t got up and started yet.
Let the sugar kick in, he thinks. Drink some water. We’ve got an hour and a half together. The chatter in the room gets louder, there’s even laughter. It’s a good sound, he thinks. It’s genuine, real. Twelve minutes after the client group came in, Andy stands up.
“Hi everyone,” he says.
Marlow puts a pin in the map on her office wall. Namibia. There are forty-two other pins in countries around the world, and she adds one every time she has done enough research on the place to say that she knows about it. Namibia. English-speaking for the most part. Christians. A fairly big country on the Atlantic Ocean, right next to all that water – but Namibia itself has almost no fresh water.
“Anything happening?” she asks into her headset.
“No,” says her assistant, Anton. “I’ve filed your emails. Any action items are pushed to the team. No urgent calls.”
Marlow hangs up and pops up her email. It’s like a ghost is in her space, the way her emails are magically being filed or sent to other people to deal with. Anton’s efficiency is so good that her inbox shrinks as she watches it. There’s nothing for her to do here.
She pulls up a browser. Glances at her phone. No calls. No text messages. On the browser, there’s a description of Namibia’s natural resources, including the abundance of copper. Images flash across her eyes, of red hills crossed by roads, and a huge complex near them, where copper extraction is occurring even now. It’s mass, she thinks. Taking metals out of the earth and putting them on the surface instead, in no way affecting the weight of the planet as it hangs in space. Just redistributing the bulk a little.
She keeps searching. Now and then, she looks at her phone. Occasionally, she watches her email vanish before she can even read it.
“Where do you want me to put my hand?” asks Andy. Music plays in the gym, and couples are moving over a floor that’s still slick from basketball practice.
Marlow shrugs. “I don’t care,” she says, and wonders if this acne-stricken, hunched-over boy who never wears bright colours will be her first kiss. She laughs. “I didn’t mean to laugh. Just don’t touch my ass.”
The dancing is awkward, the steps hard to memorize. They fumble and almost fall, as basketball nets try to understand what all these teenage boys and girls are hoping to accomplish by doing this. At least we have a purpose, say the hoops. We are a gateway. But you? All of you people swaying around, what are you doing, exactly?
“Your breath smells,” says Marlow. He stops breathing, mortified, and when he can’t hold it in, expels even more air in her direction. “You’re a terrible dancer, too.”
“This isn’t the way gym class is supposed to go,” he grumbles.
“I’ve seen you play soccer. That’s not the way gym class is supposed to go, either.”
“It’s not like I want to be close to you,” he returns. She looks at him. He’s telling the truth, she thinks. I’m fairly attractive, dusty blond, fairly tall, good-looking girl. At least that’s what she sees in the mirror. But this boy? Doesn’t want to be close to her. Doesn’t want to be her first kiss. Doesn’t want to be her first anything.
When the dance is done, she washes her hands. At lunch, she sits alone in the cafeteria and reads a book. There’s music playing on the speaker. The smell of grease coming from the kitchen. A song comes on that she recognizes. She looks up. There are a lot of kids at the tables, all making noise in that little reprieve they have between classes. On the other side of the cafeteria is Andy, chewing on a sandwich. There are two boys with him, but they’re hardly talking to each other. They’re just eating. Bite after bite into sandwiches, as though they couldn’t live without the damn things.
Alma is three hundred and fifty pounds, and for all that, she’s got to be one of the most popular people Andy has ever met. Her client list is so long that he has to book her three weeks ahead of time – but when he shows up to her apartment, he pretends in his head that there are no other clients. No other knocks on the condo door, no other men who sheepishly head down the hall after they’re done.
The thing they do with each other is a bit like a fight. It’s a contest. They mess with each other, arms and legs trying to gain some kind of dominance. She is twice his weight, so Andy’s at a disadvantage, but there’s always a moment when she lets him take charge. He never knows when that moment is going to come, which is why he keeps coming back to Alma. That and the fact that he likes big girls. It’s something he doesn’t tell people, but Alma seems to understand it perfectly, and if there’s one benefit of knowing she has such a long client list, it’s that Andy doesn’t feel alone in the world.
When they’re done, she jumps into the shower. “What kind of men do you actually like?” he asks.
She is cleaning herself with soap. “Black ones.”
“You’re not going to ask me out now, are you?” she asks, and then turns the showerhead on her face, as though she needs to scrub the lips that she used to assault him.
He’s dreamed of doing it. In the Starbucks every morning, he spares Alma a thought. That she would walk in the door and see him, an unlikely come-togetherness moment. She’d sit with him and they’d have an actual conversation. The next time he’d see her, he’d bring it up, maybe ask her out. She’d say yes, and they’d go to dinner. That’s as far as his thoughts have gone, though.
“Of course not,” he says. “I’m not black.”
The next morning, Andy is at the Starbucks. He sits in the corner, at a high table, so that he can see people coming in. Sometimes, he times how long they spend in the bathroom. A minute twelve. Three minutes thirty-three. Fifty-six seconds. Eight minutes even! What are you doing in there for eight minutes, lady, he wonders? She’s a mom but there’s no kids with her. Black jacket, heels. Sunglasses. She looks no different than she did eight minutes ago.
The door opens and people come in. Every single time it happens, he expects Alma to show up. She lives in the area. Likes coffee – he knows that much. Wisps of air spill into the shop whenever the door swings. But none of those wisps are because of Alma. Not one.
Nothing in the world smells like a squash court. It’s the smell of human beings, thinks Marlow, many of them that have come here before, and left a bit of their own selves in the wood – bits of sweat, hints of their scent, skin cells. Spittle. Vomit. Maybe a bit of pee here and there. Maybe a lot of pee here and there. It’s a perfect representation of human beings, she thinks, and she’s keenly aware of those smells as she smacks a ball against the wall. But while she’s aware of the intangible company around her, she never invites anyone to play. That would be too much. She doesn’t need that kind of accompaniment.
She smacks the ball hard, whipping from side to side of the court, making shots that are meant to be difficult. She runs. Sweats. Spits and maybe pees a little. Forty-five minutes pass just like that, and she’s a sodden mess. The showers are really nice, separated stalls where she can be naked alone. Often, she pees in the shower, even though the club has rules against it, but she can’t for the life of her figure out how they would ever find her out.
“Forty-three,” she says to the golf instructor, Laddy. He’s probably no more than thirty, she thinks, as he moves behind and positions her. He holds her by the elbows, very careful not to touch her torso. Would it be so bad to touch me, she wonders? Brown men are generally not circumcised, she’s read, and she wonders what that’s like.
“You look much younger,” he says. “Good stance. You’re ready.”
She takes a swing and the ball heads towards the rear of the driving range. The sound of the impact stays with Marlow for a bit, a testament to something she can’t really name – maybe her power. Maybe her existence. Here is Marlow, she thinks, being taught how to play golf by an Indian lad who is finishing up his post-grad, and she is the only person in existence that is doing this right now, here on this spot, with this man.
“That was amazing,” he says, and seems to mean it.
Later, she sits at a computer in her home office and looks up cocks of brown men. Suddenly, brown men appear, their cocks too. Many are very uncircumcised, and she watches with interest as these instruments enter willing women. For some reason, the women are never brown too – it’s always white women, like her. They don’t seem to acknowledge or worry about the foreskin entering them. It doesn’t seem to make their moaning and cries any better or worse. One particular video really catches her attention. A woman in glasses is staring at the screen as a brown man stands behind her. Marlow can’t see the cock. All she can see is the woman’s face. She’s genuinely having a good time, thinks Marlow. Like this isn’t all about money after all. Like there’s something else of importance in this transaction, as the film rolls and it gets a bit closer to midnight in Marlow’s little office.