It is late spring in Tangier, and Bel feels as far from home as has been in her life. There is a steady movement of clouds, low and white, traveling briskly through the sky which is so much bluer than London’s. Lix has moved ahead of her, and Bel can see the heavy sway of her hips as she maneuvers through the market, now swerving around a grey donkey and its battered cart. Bel must move quickly to catch up, to avoid being caught in a billowing shift of fabric and shoulders. She is taken aback by the differences in men’s clothing here: billowing robes that are nearly dresses, in heavy, rough, handstitched cloth; rumpled western suits, cut narrow and almost fashionably of wool, not the expected linen. The past and an imagined future, rubbing elbows in the narrow streets below the medina. Bel herself gathers more attention than either of these types. Perhaps it is her hair, or her trousers, or her height. All have attracted notice. Lix finds it amusing. Found it less amusing on the long road from Marrakech, trapped as they were on the moving train with dozens of curious men.
March in the Draâ valley was silent under towering red and barren mountains, cloudless skies, and a band of lush farmland clinging to the jade green river. They’d moved north, later in the month, to Marrakech, which they found unpleasant and dirty. They stayed well into April, only because there was no compelling reason to go elsewhere. Neither had any contacts in the city: Lix’s stringers were covering the war to the south. They had a discreet hotel room, a gigantic bed, and were sated by their own bodies, now grown slack and easy with familiarity. Then the weather turned, and they heard from a German tourist passing through that Marrakech was about to become frightfully hot. So they took off to the North. Perhaps they were looking for a port city, an easy return to Europe. Perhaps not. They were moving, that was all.
Bel has advanced to the three gates of the medina by the time she catches up to Lix. Lix hasn’t yet turned to see if Bel is still in sight, and Bel feels a grinding moment of doubt, a shock of understanding, that Lix could be here just as happily on her own. Lix turns. Her smile is wide enough to show the dark striations in her lips, where her lipstick has settled. The sun has deepened the lines around her eyes and mouth; Bel finds them beautiful. She is reassured, as she has been with each such smile in the past ten weeks. Lix has turned again, is walking again, but Bel knows that Lix can sense her following behind.
Into the medina now, the streets narrow. The gates are of a brilliant white, like so much of this city. From the roof of the hotel, just above their rooms, where they lay out each morning in gentle silence, Tangier looks white throughout, all right angles. At the level of the street, that impression fades under layers of dust and grime, broken up by the deep colors of the native dress, the warm browns of the spice vendors, the intricate and vivid tile-work on hidden panels of building facades. Bel cannot decide which is more beautiful, the pristine remove of the rooftop or the intimacy of the street. The street is, in fact, intimate, she thinks. The private business of the world is dragged out into it each morning, on blankets and boxes.
The woman to her left has bins full of olives, oleaginous, plump green and red. Bel is nearly revolted by the sour smell, until she reminds herself that she’s taken a liking to them at last. There was a chicken, last night, stewed with the olives and the pickled lemons she’s also come to appreciate, against all odds. The sour, bitter, fermented flavors unsettled her stomach, in the end, as they have done for the duration, but they were so delicious she could not force herself to part with the meal. She has gained nearly a stone this voyage, this in spite of the endless walking, the vigorous nights.
Those around her are less reserved in their appreciation of the olive cart, crowding and talking over one another, shoulders jostling her roughly. And on past a cobbler, a tea merchant, a woman selling the strange earthenware cones that are used as cooking vessels. Lix’s head has not turned, neither to see Bel behind nor to see the wares splayed out for her pleasure. But she takes pleasure in them. Bel can see in the curve of her spine, the backwards dip of her wrapped head, that she is saturated with energy and sound. Bel watches Lix inhale deeply, her entire back rising upward. She has just passed a series of overflowing white sacks, roll-brimmed, each filled with a different spice, and the pungent smell of them colors Bel’s thoughts. Turmeric, a wary and astringent yellow. Cinnamon, a mellow brown warmth. Za’atar, a queer, curious green. They will find lunch in the bazaar, Bel knows, and go back to the hotel to bathe and nap, wrapped in one another and in the glowing air that has given them a new life.
Freddie has been dead two weeks now, and the intermittent snow has turned to freezing rain. It batters the windows of the car in thudding, slushing drips that stagger down the windshields, leaving silver trails in the dark. Lix’s hair is matted in the front, the part not covered by her scarf. A curl has sunk low over her eyebrow and Bel considers reaching over and tucking it back under the ruined blue silk. She doesn’t. The car stops, not abruptly, but Bel jolts upright anyway.
“Here already? Well.” Bel pauses to stretch her dark gloves over her hands and turn up the damp, wet collar of her coat, mussing her hair further. “Tomorrow at nine, then? See if we’re still employed?”
Lix’s hand extends to cup Bel’s jaw. “Of course, darling. You get your rest. I don’t want to see these circles under your eyes come morning. And do eat something, you look positively famished.”
Bel tips her head, purses her lips fondly. Hopes Lix can tell it’s fond, but even if she can’t, Lix will never stop this mothering. It’s frightfully endearing, this behavior she won’t accept from her own mother. “Tomorrow.” Bel steps to the kerb, neatly sidestepping the first puddle only to splash her ankles in another. The dark spatters travel up her calves as she trudges up the walk, wishing she’d brought an umbrella, or at least a hat. The shoes will be ruined now, and she’ll never shake this chill, not with the radiator acting like it was this morning. She splashes through another icy puddle halfway to her door, wincing as a clot of slush traps itself in her shoe, molding itself to the arch of her foot and melting there, stinging and unpleasant as every other thing today. There is another splash behind her, an unknown foot landing in that same puddle, making her inhale quickly, a memory of a folded paper bird, of Freddie.
“My dear, I can’t bear to see you drown in this.” Lix marches up to tuck Bel close under her arm, the one not carrying an umbrella. “At least let me get you inside.”
Bel senses that her voice will be unsteady, so she does not use it, instead nodding, shivering, smiling thinly. They totter up to her steps where Bel fumbles with her key, letting it clatter uselessly around the lock before it sinks home. “Thank you. Hector did that for me once, I remember.”
“I imagine his intentions were rather less pure than my own.”
“I imagine you’re right. Come up, please. At least to dry yourself off.”
“Hm. And did Hector accept that invitation?” Lix asks.
“I didn’t offer one.”
“Not that time.”
“Not that time.” Bel smiles, sees Lix return it, a pleasant volley in the cold. It’s flirtatious, but better than flirtation for its ease. “Well?” “All right. Especially now my chivalry has me one up on Hector, how can I say no?” They finish their sad little march up the stairs and Bel hardly has the energy left to force her door open. But the narrow yellow glow of the entryway makes her feel cheered, if not warmed.
“Your coat,” Bel says, hand outstretched, the other peeling off her own and hanging it on the peg by the door. “And you may as well take off your shoes, they can’t be any better off than mine.” Lix shoos her away, and gently unties the scarf from her head, so Bel crosses to the kitchen, turning on lamps as she goes and filling the flat with light. “I have…” She peers into a cupboard. “Wine. Red wine. Vodka…and scotch. So, scotch then, yes? Oh, and towels.” She moves, quickly now, to a drawer in the hall, jerking it open roughly where it sticks, and removing two red towels. Lix is behind her again, pressing a firm hand to her shoulder.
“Sit, my dear. Dry that hair and I’ll pour.”
“Oh, Lix, really, I’m not ill.”
“But you’ll make yourself ill if you don’t take care of yourself. So sit. Glasses are…”
“Cupboard next to the refrigerator. Thanks, Lix.”
Bel perches herself on the edge of the couch and peers over her shoulder at Lix in the kitchen, pouring the cheap stuff into tumblers. While Lix isn’t looking, she quickly removes her stockings, sighing with relief as they slip off her feet and she can finally pat down her legs. Lix is at her shoulder in an instant with a glass. “You should change into something dry.”
“Oh. No, the rest of me is dry, it was just my legs that got wet. And hair.” She daubs at her head with the towel and takes a sip of the scotch. “And this is comfortable enough. Now I’ve sat I don’t think I could get up.” Lix nods and sits next to her, the cushions shifting to accommodate their weight. She’s looking around the flat now, and there’s something she’s about to say. Or about to stop herself from saying. “I know, it’s awful,” Bel says, regretting it in the very next moment. Because it’s not really so awful. Such a small flat, and she has such few things, how much of a mess can there be? There are a few coffee mugs on the counter, and a plate. The ashtray on her desk is in need of emptying. A photograph on the wall, the one of her mum, back when she was too young to be glamorous, is crooked, but Lix wouldn’t be able to see why. So much pain and anger, and she couldn’t even manage to break a vase, or a mirror, or a window. Just tipped a frame a few degrees to the right. Such a small shift.
“Of course it’s awful, darling. Everything’s awful, why not your flat? I must say, I was rather surprised by how well you’d been holding up this week. I’m almost relieved to see some evidence of disorder.”
They talk a bit, just enough talk to make it through two drinks each. About last week’s show, about Hector’s performance, about Isaac’s play, which has received such good notice. About Lix’s stringers in Morocco, who sent word today of the Saharan Liberation Army invading the Spanish Sahara. Not about Freddie. Bel knows she must truly be collapsing, if Lix is treating her so delicately. Yes, she’s been keeping herself together on the job. If, tomorrow, she has no job, she will probably not survive it. Does she want to survive it? Does she want to return to the work that he died for? That killed him? Lix’s hair is absurd now, individual strands drying and spiraling upwards, trying to escape her head. Bel is glad for it. She can’t see her own hair, but it can’t be so unruly. She’s holding herself together, and Lix is a mess, for all that she has no reason to be.
“I don’t even know if I should ask, but did they ever track down Camille?” Lix asks.
“Yes, yesterday. She called.”
“What, she just rang you up?”
“No, she came here,” Bel says. “I think she expected a row, but I couldn’t give her one.”
“Oh, how awful. Where had she been all this time?”
“Paris. They knew she was there, just not with whom. They…Freddie and she had separated, and she was staying with friends. But they found her, and she arrived yesterday. She hates me.”
“Oh, darling, she’s just lost her husband. Separated or not, he was that. You can’t take her at her word right now.”
“No, she does. It’s all right; she should. And I don’t imagine I’ll see her again. She’s leaving for France again next week, once she’s finished cleaning up all their affairs. Not many affairs to clean, they weren’t married long.”
“I wonder what on earth made her leave. Apart from jealousy, of course, and that is a powerful motivator. But really, a woman who finds someone like that in her bed would be well advised to keep him there.”
Bel looks up, startled, then laughs. Lix is distracted, looking off into the hall as though something far more interesting is around the corner. “Did you imagine him some great lover, then, Lix?”
Lix’s look is incredulous, sly. “Am I to take it you weren’t impressed, then? My goodness, perhaps my standards have lowered in my old age! I found him perfectly divine. Not that I’d say as much to Camille, I’d rather not have her knocking down my door in a rage.”
Something in Bel’s face freezes as her throat collapses. An instinctive mask, put on while the rest of her decides whether it can struggle on with the conversation. A moment. She can. She finds her voice, finds a smile that feels too wide, like it’s splitting her lips in two. “Oh! No, we never.” She sees Lix’s lovely eyes go wide in horror. Yes, she sees now. “But you did, then. Sleep with him. No, I. I never knew that.” Lix has one hand to her chest now, fingers tapping frantically at her throat. Her other hand is on Bel’s knee. Bel’s heart is beating too rapidly. Her cheeks are flushed, and her ears, and she can’t quite find room for a breath. Lix, at least, knows what to do.
There’s a moment of awkward shifting on the couch, the nap of it sticking to Lix’s wool trousers when she inches closer to grasp Bel’s shoulders. It’s a bit unpleasant, the damp cloth pressed against her skin, but Lix’s hands on the other side are warm. It’s not quite an embrace; it’s something more emphatic. An apology, perhaps. All the sensation in the world is narrowed down to hot palms that have, it seems, touched Freddie’s skin intimately, in a way she couldn’t. Can’t, now. Bel must look away, must do it right this instant, but she can’t, seized by a mad compulsion to examine Lix’s body for trace evidence. “When.” It should be a question, is a question, but her reticence makes it a statement.
“Oh, ages ago, darling, before he left the first time. While you and Hector were together. Honestly, I’m sure that was the only reason it happened at all. Bel, I had no idea. I’d assumed the two of you were…my god, how ghastly of me.”
“No. No, it’s not ghastly. Did it go on long, then?”
Lix chuckles, then stops herself with a glance at Bel, still only inches away and gripping her. “No, it didn’t go on at all. It was just the once. You remember, that night we went dancing at that bar…Sunlight, was it?…for Freddie’s birthday.”
“You played the piano.” Bel sets down her empty glass, and the movement dislodges Lix’s hand. Bel retrieves it with her own, and they are holding hands. It should be awkward, but it isn’t, not in the slightest. “Freddie called me exquisite. And I left.”
“With Hector, yes. And he got some comfort. That was all. It was never…of course I loved him, darling, everyone loved him. But not like you did.” Lix’s hand is larger than it should be, Bel thinks. But then, so are Bel’s hands. Tall women, ungainly women, both of them. With soft hands, looking guardedly at each other. “He loved you then. He did always, I think. But you know that. I’m sorry if. If I took something from you, in giving something to him.”
“No, you didn’t.” She finds she’s been staring at their hands, and forces herself to look up at Lix’s face. Makes something like a smile happen. “Divine, then?” The smile fails as quickly as she forms it. Bel is suddenly struck by every discomfort at once. The cold, because the radiator can’t keep off the chill. And the damp, and the nagging little bruise on the inside of her elbow, where she’s found herself pinching at the softest part of her skin throughout the day, over and over, just to keep her mind where it needs to be. She leans forward, lets herself collapse, just the littlest bit, onto Lix’s shoulder. Regrets it. It’s far too intimate. But Lix knows, of course, what to do with it, and clutches her tight, pressing a fierce kiss to the crown of her head. It should be awkward, slumping down like this, the eternal curse of a tall woman. But the silk on Lix’s shoulder is fine, and the hollow under her ear looks like sanctuary. Bel’s arm is tucked gently against Lix’s side, and she can feel Lix’s breast, heavy and real. Freddie must have kissed her there, Bel thinks suddenly, and she cannot distinguish the bolt of want that runs through her body from the anguish that arches her back. She’s sobbing and aroused at once, and not certain which is more mortifying. She gives herself a moment, pulls deep inside her own body, to identify the heaving of her chest and to analyze it. This is grief, she understands, and so she allows it to run its course. In time, her pulse slows and her eyes, puffed to unseeing slits, dry. She is still pressed against Lix, her cheek drying the wet spot on Lix’s blouse, which has gone sheer and dark, revealing the strap of a camisole and a brassiere.
Lix’s hand strokes Bel tenderly down the length of her spine, and it raises goosebumps on her arms. Bel feels her nipples tighten, and she cannot help a small gasp, breathing in a dark hair from the nape of Lix’s neck, and her subtle perfume. “Yes, he was divine, my dear. And you should have had him for yourself. And he should have had you, not an Amazon old enough to be his mother. I’d say I don’t know what he was thinking, but I’m certain he was thinking of you and little else.”
There is such sadness, and such kindness, in her words. In her hands, still stroking Bel’s back, her hair. Bel says the first thing that comes to her mind, a surprising thought. “Who wouldn’t have you, Lix? Who wouldn’t want you?” As though it is Lix who needs comfort. More surprising than the words, than the fact that she’s said them, even, is the lack of bitterness behind them. Bel is startled by herself, and pulls away, enough to look again into Lix’s eyes, glistening now. There seems to be only one thing to do, and it is the most absurd action she could take. It is absurd and it is inevitable: she slips into the kiss as she would a warm bath, a soft bed, a deep sleep, a coma. Lix does not pull back, but Bel understands, somehow, that she is leaving a pocket of space in the kiss: just enough room so that Bel, if she wanted, could pull back and laugh at her own silliness, deny any impulse to go further. She won’t, and that fact is astonishing in its certainty. She wants very much to take from Lix whatever comfort Freddie had taken before, but she does need, very suddenly, to know that this won’t all end in disaster. Her hands still tangled in Lix’s hair, she draws back and opens her eyes to see Lix’s, open and surprised. “Tell me that this is all right.”
Lix smiles indulgently, as though Bel has said something precious. “This is more than all right.”
“I haven’t before. With. But I want to.” She says it quickly, the words as rapid as her pulse.
“I have, my dear. You’ll be a quick study, I’m sure.” A second kiss, more sure now. Lix’s mouth is firmer than she’d thought, and the remaining traces of her lipstick are slightly tacky. Bel did not know, until it fell away, the weight of her anxiety. She pulls back one last time, their lips sticking together for an extra fraction of a second, and spares a thought for what color hers might be now, whether they’ve taken on the deeper red stain of Lix’s, or if her own coral lipstick has remained intact.
Bel says, with unshakable confidence, “Come on.” She stands, letting her fingers trail down from Lix’s shoulder, sliding down to her wrist in invitation. Their journey to the bedroom is almost solemn in its silence, but when they cross the threshold, Bel hears Lix’s low chuckle.
“Rather small, isn’t it?” Lix is smiling a bit, the left corner of her mouth turned up. Her lips are, in fact, paler. She’s looking at the bed, which is, yes, small. Bel can’t find it in herself to be embarrassed or indignant.
“Big enough.” She turns, backs up to sit on the edge of it, and pulls Lix forward by her hips. Bel presses her cheek against’ Lix’s belly, feels the rasp of wool, and the cool silk on her brow, and thinks of her mother before she pushes the thought away. She begins untucking the blouse, slowly, with purpose. “Where did you go? That night.”
Bel is startled into looking up, halfway to a laugh, when she catches the expression on Lix’s face. There is so much in it. Grief, she can see, refuses to see. Desire. Tenderness. She is beautiful. “You really are an Amazon, you know.”
Lix steps back reproachfully, but Bel hooks a finger in the waist of her trousers to keep her near. “You say it as though it’s an insult, but it’s not. You’re taller than anything. You look like you could rule the world from up there.” The slow smile on Lix’s face is priceless. Lix reaches down, never breaking eye contact, to brush aside Bel’s hands. She finishes unbuttoning her blouse, the purple silk draping uselessly at her sides. When she shrugs it off, she turns to fold it loosely and set it on the dresser. She’s three steps away now, still staring intently enough to raise a blush on Bel’s cheeks. Her eyes are the darkest blue. She pulls her camisole over her head, careful not to muss her already-mussed hair, folds it. Lix unbuttons her trousers with her tremendous, steady hands. Removes them, folds them, turning as she does to bare her hips. Bel thinks of burial mounds.
Lix moves forward, finally, into Bel’s space, so close that she must be able to feel Bel’s breath against the softened, white skin on her stomach. Bel sees the tiny hairs below her navel, so fine and pale they glitter. Under them, delicate silvery lines on her skin. Stretch marks, like the ones her mother blamed on Bel. She cannot ask the question; doesn’t even want to. Looking up, she sees Lix’s face is almost stern in its determination. Lix cups a hand behind Bel’s head, the inside of her knuckles pressing up at the spot where her spine meets her skull. Pulling her up to standing. Bel is still staring at Lix, and spares a thought that she should be overwhelmed by the constant eye-contact. Instead, they’ve created a space, an enclosed room where they can do this without blinking. They can’t look down, not without falling. Her clothes are being pulled off of her, with great care. The breath catches in her throat. She’s wearing so many layers, it will take far too long.
“Lix.” Bel’s voice is rough and so low it catches on the way out. “I can—”
“Of course you can, darling. Let me.”
“Let me rule the world just for a moment, hm?”
Bel’s breath escapes her, and she lets her head loll to one side as though shy. She is not shy: she has never been. She is acquiescing, just this once. Goosebumps rise on her clammy skin as Lix unbuttons her jacket and pushes it aside to kiss her throat. The wanting, the nonsensical heat between her legs, had waned in the space between the sofa and the bed. The logistics of this are never as arousing as they could be, she knows. But: the sensation of Lix’s hands parting the blouse under her jacket; the slide beneath to cradle her ribs; the wrists glancing against the lower curve of her breasts; the sharp, careful scrape of teeth against her neck. All send a hot shiver through her limbs, and Bel’s abdominal muscles tighten and clench in surprised pleasure. It does not take so long for Lix to undress her, to smooth her palms down her own bare hips and rounded stomach, to kneel, kissing her hipbones and stroking her thighs.
Lix never asks if Bel is sure. She is looking, looking hard, and she must be able to see that Bel has no doubts, that this is what she needs. Even if Lix couldn’t tell, she’d be made certain when Bel hoists her up by her arm and tumbles them both into the cramped single bed. Lix’s startled puff of breath turns to laughter, low and harmonic. The release of tension between them is like breathing again, after long minutes submerged. Bel is suddenly unable to keep herself from laughing back, first at the ridiculous bed, then at this, the exact opposite of what she should be doing. Lix, thank god, picks up on the changed mood at once, and her drifting fingers, her darting lips, become light and playful. Bel still doesn’t think she could possibly speak, like there’s anything at all that she could say. But some rage she hasn’t yet accounted for has dissipated into the weightlessness of forgetting. She lets herself tumble apart into this tangle of closely-knotted limbs and aligned curves, her palms moving of their own accord to the heavy, soft curve of Lix’s breasts. She sighs deeply enough to match Lix’s own exhalation. The satin brassiere crumples slightly at the pressure of Bel’s hands, and as she strokes through it, she feels Lix’s nipples shrink and harden into the cone of fabric. When Bel finally manages to unclasp the bra, she slides it down with Lix’s help and sinks her head lower, mouthing and suckling from Lix’s collarbone to the firm peak of her breast. Lix’s moan is gratifying, until its timbre shifts almost imperceptibly to that of a sob. Bel freezes, sees Lix’s eyes still open, still dark and wide with interest, but wet with tears.
“Oh god, Lix. Is this not okay?”
Lix’s expression shifts further, pain into wry humor and back again, before she lets her head fall back onto the bed. “Would it be awful of me, dearest, if I said that you reminded me of Freddie just then?”
Bel’s ears ring for a moment, and her extremities go cold and numb as she tries to gather herself together. “Yes, it is awful, Lix. How—” She rolls onto her back to breathe and unfocus her eyes, abruptly as turned off as she’s ever been in her life. Not because she’s been reminded that Freddie has touched Lix, she decides. No, it’s because she’s been reminded that she should be grieving, is grieving, while dallying with his one-time lover, a woman old enough to be her mother. Their mother. No matter how beautiful Lix is, and no matter how she has managed to break that grief down to its component parts, to make living manageable for a few short minutes. “I’m.” She rolls her head to look at Lix again, but Lix is on her back as well, staring up at the ceiling, clearly horrified with herself. “Lix. I’m sorry. It’s hard for you, too. I’m being a bit selfish, aren’t I, acting like I’m the only one who should be mourning.”
“I shouldn’t have burdened you with that. That was…exceedingly poor judgment on my part. In the heat of the moment it seemed acceptable.” Lix’s hand drifts slowly up and down Bel’s forearm, seemingly without intent. Bel finds she doesn’t want to retract her arm, and instead lifts it to twine their hands together.
“You mustn’t think I’m upset with you. That you and he were together. I’m really not. I’d just forgotten, for a moment. That’s unforgivable of me, isn’t it? It was like he wasn’t here at all. But he has to be, doesn’t he?”
Lix finally looks over at their hands, then at Bel’s face, and Bel does what she can to clear it of frustration, of jealousy, of anything other than comfort, sadness, and want. Lix’s entire body rolls over, a tidal shift on the tiny bed. It’s not as though the turmoil of the last few minutes hasn’t happened, Bel thinks. But they’ve been neutralized now. It’s safe to move forward.
“Of course he does,” Lix says. “He is.”
Bel arches an eyebrow at the unexpected platitude.
“Oh, you know what I mean. Not in the spiritual sense, of course, but he’ll be present in our minds, and it couldn’t be otherwise. The only question is if you want me to be here as well.”
Bel smiles, gently, rolling over to meet Lix and tracing the outer edge of her arm with a fingertip. “I think I do, yes.” When they kiss again, the difference is immediate. Where Bel expects tenderness, Lix is more insistent, her hands moving unpredictably in broad strokes across Bel’s body. She gasps, confused and flushing all over.
“This,” Lix murmurs, teeth rasping at Bel’s collarbone while she works at Bel’s bra hooks, “is how he kissed me.”
Bel’s vision blurs with heat and tears, and she arches into Lix’s touch, overwhelmed by the doubled presence of the woman she has and the man she’s lost. Lix’s hands never stop, the wide circles they’ve inscribed narrowing and moving lower, inexorably. One hand, Lix’s right, moves to cup at the joining of Bel’s legs, the heel of her palm pressing above her clit, fingertips dipping low and covering themselves in Bel’s slick wetness. Her hands are not her own now, Bel knows: they’re a projection of a memory, and she chases it down.
“He was a clumsy boy then, but he was enthusiastic. We were both a little drunk. It hardly took long at all; he never even got me out of my camisole before he was fucking me against my desk.” Lix brings her left hand down to remove the heavy gold signet ring from her right, and Bel hears the click of it on her nightstand. Then there are two long fingers slipping inside of her, and she trembles around them. Bel sits up in an awkward half-recline, needing desperately to see Lix’s face, to watch her narrate the motions of the hands that are not her hands.
Lix shoves a pillow from the side of the bed up to her, so that Bel can stuff it behind her heaving back, all the while being pressed open. “How big was he?”
Lix smiles sadly, unfurls a third finger from her palm and presses inside. “Bigger than you would have imagined, probably. Skinny thing that he was. He shoved right into me, no finesse at all. We were both utterly pissed. But it was more than enough, you see?” And she demonstrates, hand pumping vigorously as she surges back up to kiss Bel once more, bite at her shoulder, nuzzle her belly with her cheek. Lix is still wearing her knickers, and the cream satin of them is slick and sliding wildly against Bel’s calf. Bel can feel every inch of Lix’s fingers dragging up inside her, can feel the crook of Lix’s thumb prodding at her clitoris on every stroke. Her belly is tightening, each press of Lix’s hand thrumming through her like a pulse, and she cannot stop the inelegant, sobbing grunts being pushed out of her in a ceaseless rhythm. Lix lifts her body once more, never stilling her hand, and shifts forward, looming powerfully in Bel’s vision, in a way, Bel knows, Freddie never would have been able to. Bel collapses slightly as Lix’s free arm wraps behind her shoulders. She is being cradled in Lix’s arms, and Lix is rocking into her harder and harder. Bel’s orgasm tightens around her, finally crashing over in a long, ecstatic moment.
After several gasping breaths, Bel’s vision realigns. She’s prone on the bed, and she manages to lift her head and hand up just enough to crook an eyebrow, crook a finger, at Lix. The invitation is clear, but Lix shakes her head, curls jangling. She isn’t withdrawing her hand. Lix is still crouched at the end of the mattress, legs bent awkwardly, looking at Bel’s face with the focus of a predator. She dips her head low, her brow resting in the hollow curve of Bel’s waist. She speaks, and her voice vibrates into Bel’s navel, making her squirm. “That’s how he touched me. How he would have touched you.”
Lix is moving now, moving her hand but not thrusting. She’s turned her wrist up — the drag of her fingers is rough and shocking — and is pressing firmly, stroking at some new, untouched place inside Bel that makes her gasp, her eyes fluttering closed. “Lix, what are you —”
“That’s how Freddie would’ve wanted to touch you. And this is how I will.” Rocking back on her heels, Lix brings her firm mouth down, licking into the swollen folds surrounding her own fingers. She’d felt sated, Bel thinks, and cannot begin to understand the orgasm barreling down upon her, drawn inexorably by the electric current running between the sharp fluttering of Lix’s tongue and the ruthless pressure of her fingers. It’s too fast, too soon after the first, almost painful in its intensity, and Bel feels, in these exploded seconds, like she may actually be breaking apart. Like the whole world is as broken as she is. Almost as soon as it’s begun, she’s collapsed back into herself, gasping and human once more.
“Christ. Come up here.” Bel’s only half-conscious, really. And in a moment of panic she thinks she’s about to be rebuffed, but Lix slides her fingers out, gently, wetly, and wipes them casually on her thigh while she straightens out her legs to move up to the head of the bed. Bel can see the discomfort of long-neglected arousal on Lix’s face, so pulls herself back together as quickly as she can. She kisses Lix, both their mouths slack and panting, Bel from post-orgasmic exhaustion, Lix from desperation. Bel tastes the mellow, salty tang of herself on Lix’s lips and groans, enjoying it. “Take off those damned knickers, my god.”
Lix smiles, open-mouthed, and does, wriggling her hips in slow motion against the white sheets until the offending garment is shoved to the end of the bed. They are facing each other on their sides, and Bel is painfully aware of how little she knows. A deeper flush springs to her cooling cheeks, this time of embarrassment. “Tell me what to do.” She punctuates this with caresses, but can see from Lix’s slack mouth, from her writhing hips, that the time for such gentleness has long passed.
“My god, you glorious girl.” Lix heaves herself up atop Bel’s lap, straddling one leg. Bel is able, then, to feel Lix’s wetness, coarse hairs gliding effortlessly against her own thigh as Lix ruts helplessly against her. She sits up on her elbows so that she can cup both of Lix’s breasts in her hands, and sucks firmly at her left nipple, eliciting a broken gasp. Bel presses up, increases the pressure of her thigh, trapped so tightly now against Lix that she imagines she can feel Lix’s trembling, her hardening. She wonders, fleetingly, if Lix was like this with Freddie. If she were so generous with him, or so ravenous. Lix’s breaths are coming rapidly now, each exhalation paired with a small whine, almost a whistle, at the back of her throat. Inspired to show her gratitude, Bel retracts her thigh and replaces it with her hand, two fingers plunging in hard and fast, the base of her thumb grinding firm against Lix’s clit. At the same time, she lets her teeth scrape sharply at the rock-hard nipple in her mouth, and Lix’s orgasm is nearly instantaneous. The clenching of Lix’s pelvic muscles against Bel’s hand is painful, like a trap, and she rocks her wrist rhythmically, to the beat of Lix’s hoarse shouts. Bel collapses, exhausted, rolling them both to their sides, where Lix is panting and groaning still minutes later, the aftershocks draining her of any remaining energy. When they fall asleep, they are slick and sticky still, the sheets a disaster, Bel’s lips still at Lix’s breast, Lix still stroking the top of Bel’s golden head.
Lix has stopped, far down the narrow road, stilling her long legs in front of the dusty mat of a tea merchant. In London, Bel drank coffee. Tea as well, of course, but on waking, it was coffee that she wanted. And here, in Tangier, coffee is good and in abundant supply. It’s dark and rich, so thick it could be eaten with a spoon, and served in charming little cups. Bel is surprised, finally, to miss tea, then. But she does. There’s tea here, of a sort, obviously, or Lix wouldn’t have found a tea merchant to rest in front of. But it’s odd, herbal stuff. Mint, and astringent green tea, tiny balls of it that curl on themselves then unfurl like larvae in the hot water. It’s poured with great ceremony that leaves her cold and uninvigorated. It tastes rather good, actually. It would be unfair to say otherwise. Perhaps it’s just the name that irritates her: to call it tea is to be deliberately cruel to English tourists. Bel has, as a result of this and many other discoveries on her adventure, never felt so English in her life.
Ignoring the dull tapping of her heels on the cobblestones, Bel is reminded of the way that sound alters in deference to its surroundings. In the south, along the Draâ, each noise fell from its source and into the shifting sands as soon as it was made. In such a wide space, she and Lix had to stand very near each other in order to speak: it was a tender intimacy under the open sky. In the modern construction of the new city, around their hotel here in Tangier, for example, or earlier in Marrakech, voices bounced harshly off of the hard, straight walls lining the streets. Every building was a cube, there, with the occasional interest of a window, and every word she spoke was thrown back into her face. But here, in the old city, there are alcoves, alleyways, tiled mosaics, and odd carvings in and amongst the surrounding buildings; sounds have a way of trapping themselves, getting lost, and reemerging far from their intended destination. Though Bel is still impossibly far behind Lix, who is purchasing two cups of tea now, Lix’s disembodied voice emerges from the apparent location of a fruit shop, hanging over the stacked lemons.
“…must you, darling?”
Of course she would call a bedraggled tea merchant darling, Bel thinks. Lix thinks nothing of such endearments, and on her lips they are no endearment at all, just a concession that you are a small thing that gives her some minor pleasure. Bel stops herself, shocked at her sudden bitterness. It’s unwarranted, unwelcome here, on a gorgeous spring day, with lovely scents in the air and the sun warming her hair, lightening it infinitesimally as it has done each day for all these weeks. These happy weeks, in which Lix has been nothing but adoring and patient and kind. She thinks of the morning, the sudden sunrise she still has not grown used to, the breeze moving the curtain of their window and allowing shadows to play gently across Lix’s sleeping face. She’d woken Lix with lazy kisses, so gentle that Lix had been moaning and parting her thighs before her eyes were even open. Bel loved, has grown to love, they way that their bodies melt together in the morning, soft shifting curves sliding into place, slow and rhythmic as the days in this beautiful, alien country. Bel shakes her head, letting the memory fly from her, and steps quickly away from that queerly displaced voice.
It must be the incipient heat that is slowing Bel’s steps. Each one grows heavier, and each passing moment the surrounding shops appear more inviting, their wares cascading into the avenue to entice her in. A trinket shop, of some sort, beckons. It is empty, likely because it is filled with the sort of rubbish no one really needs, but each little figurine, print, and tapestry improves on the image in her mind of her bare walls in London. The shopkeeper is a small man, pale, wizened and hunched in a rumple of cloth in the corner, the scarf wrapped atop his head askew, reminding her of a bad hairpiece. His face is vague, and she has a grotesque fear that its specifics will not coalesce under her scrutiny. She knows she is being rude, staring at his face that is hardly a face, and though he does not speak (is he staring at her, or at the middle distance between them?) she forces herself to look away, at a small case of signet rings on the counter to her left, at a shelf of model ships on a wall in a back room. She can see it through a doorway, one in the middle, larger than the rest, with a brilliant white sail cutting through the dust. From the direction of the shopkeeper, Lix’s voice:
“…this is lovely, fleeting though it is.”
The tea, then. Lix must be waiting for her, as she’d ordered two cups, or at least Bel had seen two cups being prepared. Bel is not ready to join her, transfixed by the ship, pinned by the not-gaze of the shopkeeper. The ship is familiar. It reminds her, she recognizes in a rush, of her father, of his collection of model ships. It is, she’s suddenly certain, the same model ship that rests on the sitting room table of her flat in London, transported to a dingy shop in Tangier. The terror returns to her, and Bel forces herself to look at the shopkeeper once more. His face has revealed itself, revealed someone else. Freddie’s eyes, cloudy green and piercing, fix on her, and he nods with the force of some obscured meaning.
Bel escapes into the street, into the bright sunlight, her heart pounding as though she’d escaped something far more awful than an old man with someone else’s face trying to sell her a toy ship. It is safer, out in the open, surrounded by pleasant crowds that murmur as they pass. She has slowed, a heavy stone rolling in a quick-moving stream. Lix is ahead, she knows. Bel looks up, just a glance, sees Lix’s face, not so far away now, looking at hers. Bel looks down, then at the uneven paving stones. They are so pale grey they could almost be white, were her shoes not more brilliant. The creases in her shoes, around the toe box, have begun to accumulate dust. She wants it there, the dust, to keep her grounded, rooted in this place. There is movement around her, almost caressing her side, against her blue traveling suit, and that caress makes her feel instantly bare. Her hair is swept aside as if by a hand, and she shudders at that touch. She should run, she knows, move forward. But she is unwilling, unable, to look up past the dirt, past the grit between her toes.
The market grows silent. A warm breath touches her neck.
“Bel.” She looks up, expects to see Lix at the tea stall, but instead she is hovering inches away, eyes heavy, lips bare, hair wild. Her voice is sleepy, confused, and Bel cannot look away no matter how she tries. The voice, a rough murmur against bare skin: “Are you thinking of opening with the Morocco story then, darling?”
Bel forces her eyes to open to the waking world this time, cracking the seal of mascara that has melted from her lashes, sees a pack of cigarettes, three left in it, open on her nightstand next to the blue enamel tray. Glances across the bed to her hand, shifts the covers to see the notes on her writing pad. In the thin January light, she can barely read her scrawled outline of Lix’s story on the Ifni war, the battle in Echdera that began yesterday. She moves slightly under the sheets, just awake enough now to be aware of her own nudity: the slide of one bare thigh against the other. And another yet. Lix. The weight across her waist confirms it, and she stills. Bel doesn’t know if she can manage being in bed with an already-awake Lix just yet: she is still half-asleep and can’t bear the thought of needing to make decisions before she can have a cigarette and a cup of coffee. A further glance at the clock reveals it is half five in the morning, when they’d gotten to sleep no earlier than midnight. A glass of water sits waiting on her nightstand from sometime earlier in the week, untouched, tiny bubbles clinging to the inner walls. An empty coffee mug, complete with lipstick stain, from…sometime earlier than the water glass, likely.* From Russia with Love*, a corner turned down about fifty pages from the end. Bel can’t even begin to remember the story she was reading just yesterday. Earrings, gold and pearl in a paisley swoop: a gift from her mother. A signet ring. Her pen, heavy and waiting, fresh from the notepad. Morocco, of course. The Moroccan army invading the Spanish Sahara.
“Assuming we’re not sacked at nine, then yes.” Bel lets the book fall to the floor, a quiet rustle, and turns, letting her hair drag over Lix’s bare arm. “We* will* be sacked, I think.” Lix’s eyes are so near to hers, so lazy and deep and blue. The creases in the corners are darkened by the leaching of her eyeliner, but she still looks beautiful. The watery grey light has cast a pallor on her skin. Lix reaches across Bel’s body, bringing their lips together while she scrabbles at the nightstand for two cigarettes. She flops back to the pillow, triumphant, and Bel can see the moment when she realizes she hasn’t grabbed the lighter as well. Bel smirks, grabbing it for her, and waits for her cigarette to be lit. “Don’t you want to be, a bit? I can’t quite imagine going in day after day now.”
Lix passes one over, pushing herself up to a half recline in the bed, gently shifting Bel’s shoulders so that she’s resting her head on Lix’s soft hip, curving into belly. “No. No, I don’t, my dear. I don’t want to go in either, of course, but that’s mourning for you. You press on, and you’re grateful you did, in the end. What on earth would we do with ourselves, anyway? We need to be working, you and I.”
Bel thinks of a desert sun, billowing curtains, the taste of olives on her tongue. She can’t help but ask. “You said once that Morocco is the most marvellous place to get lost. That we should get on a train.” Lix’s chuckle is a silent vibration through the soft skin of her stomach. “Think of it, though. Really. What are we doing here? I…I told Freddie. I told Freddie once that I wasn’t brave enough to run away from everything. Not like he did.”
“Did you really?”
Bel takes a long drag off of the cigarette, wishes for coffee. “No. No, I didn’t. I almost did. I wasn’t brave enough to tell him that much either. So…I think that I should do it, shouldn’t I? You could come with me. We could see Tangier, walk in the markets together. No one would know us. It’d be like…like being new people. We could invent new stories for each other, you and I.” She doesn’t look up, can’t bear to be so hopeful. Even as she says it the dream is fading, the tastes of it turning to dust on her tongue. The pause draws out into a silence. Bel begins counting in her head, thinking that once she reaches one hundred, she’ll stop feeling humiliated, get up, begin dressing. She makes it to seventy-two.
“I ran away once.” It seems, for another long moment, that Lix has finished speaking. But she runs a hand through Bel’s hair, her bare, short nails scratching Bel’s scalp. She leans over Bel’s shoulder to ash her collapsing cigarette in the tray, almost too far to reach. Tells her about Mexico. About the open sky over the desert. About the sleepy afternoon rains in the green valleys, seen from the crumbling windows of the rooms she shared with her lover, Sybille. About Sybille herself. About the child Lix was running from. About how Lix survived grief, only to survive it once more. “Running takes such little courage. There’s the step out the door, and that requires some fortitude; but the forgetting, the staying gone, that’s all cowardice. Freddie was brave, in the end, when he came back to you.”
“To you, my darling child. He came back for you. And to do the job that you both loved. That’s bravery.” After a silence, cigarettes gone, Lix moves, almost imperceptibly, but enough to signal that the conversation is ending. Many things are ending. “Besides,” she says, voice tight and choked, “there’s a war on now. No use going to Morocco for a holiday.” She levers herself out of bed, the tall, pale expanse of her unselfconscious and far too imposing for the small room. Bel’s eyes cloud over with stinging tears. She can’t see Lix bend forward, kiss her firmly upon her brow, but feels it all the same. “Up, my dear. Time to wake up.”