A jutting, brick-walled affair, we’d moved into our one-bed flat three weeks ago. It wasn’t much – first time buys never are.
But it was something. It was our space; it was home.
Enchanted by the balcony, Aziza visited the garden centre an hour after we were handed the keys. She came back swamped by Swiss cheese plants and various succulents, hanging wisteria and suspicious looking seed packets. Flushed with perspiration, she introduced the rabble as ‘our new plant babies’.
“Isn’t it amazing? There’s so much life here now” she smiled, sweeping her hands across the grey exterior, cooing over the great green army now lining the six feet of concrete.
“Yes, excellent,” I murmured, pouring the last of our good red.
Raising her own wine, she made a toast.
“To us, and our future” she grinned, our flutes clinking delicately. We’d lost our bog-standard glasses in the move, and so were drinking from the snow-capped crystal my late mother had gifted us at our wedding. Far too fancy for us, but today was cause for celebration. New home, my girl, and our first kids.
“And the plant babies” she added, as though reading my mind. She rested her dark-haired head on my shoulder, and in that moment a gush of hazy happiness flooded my every inch, quivering at the extremities.
Must be strong stuff, I thought, peering into the sanguine liquid. Disheartened by the empty bottle, I drained my glass, submerging my hot face in the crystallised snow.
Aziza whirled around me, her body a compact parcel of will and panic. Dressed simply, she was elegant in a red bodycon and dripping silver jewellery. Bangles jangled on her slim brown arms, and her pedant sat demurely at the base of her neck.
“Stunning,” I growled huskily, my voice nibbling her ear. Chuckling, she deftly swatted me away: tonight, lovemaking was the least of her concerns. Tonight, she was the beaming hostess, the poster-girl for married life and cramped, urban bliss.
Our house-warming party. Inevitable, and perhaps fun to laugh at once the guests had gone. But as the event loomed I began to wish it was behind us, something we were reminiscing over. I struggled to see the fun in twenty acquaintances stuffed into our beautiful home. To me, it seemed an unnecessary invasion.
A cursory glance at my pallid face informed me I’d over-lipsticked, and I scrubbed at my crimson mouth in a futile attempt to appear less washed out. Make up is something of a new hobby to me, and in the past couple of weeks my face has witnessed my struggles with highlighter, eyeshadow, and the complicated contour palette Aziza bought for my birthday. I have tried silver glitter and winged liner, spiky lashes and gold shimmers tracing my cheekbones. Vague efforts to remedy my vapid exterior, though next to Aziza I needn’t bother. Entirely delectable as a bare presence, her face is a God-given gift.
Bright yellow and velvet, my dress was sticking out in all the wrong places. I had always seemed to wobble everywhere I shouldn’t; fat arms, fat legs, fat fat stomach. With A-cups and a square arse, my figure’s refusal at conforming to feminine ideals of beauty was verging on comical.
I’d eaten chips for tea, and now they were staring back at me through my protruding gut. Posing for the mirror, I sucked in, making a mental note to stay behind the camera tonight.
I sighed. Irritatingly, Aziza hadn’t eaten anything. Though chip-shop delicacies were her favourite, today she’d refused the steaming golden beauties with ease, and rather nonchalantly.
“Too much to do” she’d muttered, aggressively fluffing pillows as I crammed several chips into my mouth at once.
She’d been preparing food all day, slapping at my hand if I so much as peeped at her creation. Our thrifted dining table groaned under the weight of a dozen plates. Each dish boasted a different aperitif, all as neat and delicate as their maker. An array of cuisines, it was all very healthy. Fresh and green, I characterised it ‘summer body’ grub; certainly not fit for parties I’d become accustomed. A medley of Mediterranean vegetables circled carefully placed pitta breads and lettuce wraps, carrots were propped up in cups as substituted breadsticks. Aziza had even made her own guacamole, and it sat proudly in the corner, surrounded by differing nibble-y bits; strange crisp-like concoctions formed from sweet potatoes and the like.
Gratifyingly, our tiny kitchen had also undergone a transformation, masquerading as ‘The Bar’ for the evening. Metal cocktail shakers and miscellaneous spirits sat atop the counter, chintzy cocktail glasses were stuffed in the cupboards. We’d both agreed to hide the crystal flutes, solemnly declaring they be stashed away for their own safety.
I watched Aziza’s curves bounce in her tight dress as she poured us both a shot, my mind roaming. And then her phone buzzed and she squealed delightedly, spilling vodka everywhere.
“They’re here!” clapping her tiny hands three times, she jumped to the front door.
I did not follow her. Bubbles of chatter erupted as I heard her greet our first guests, and a spasm of anxiety ricocheted across my chest.
This is for Aziza, I remembered, shovelling ice into a nearby shaker.
“I always thought I’d go into investigative journalism. But when my career guided me to opinion pieces, I certainly wasn’t complaining,” the stranger gabbled, pausing for breath. Guzzling the remains of her cosmo, she pushed an olive through her wide mouth, swallowing it whole.
“Very artisan, this spread. I’m impressed at the range” she nodded, her hand on my forearm preventing escape.
“Yes” I smiled, a closed-lipped affair. In truth, I now found the smorgasbord Aziza had lain out to be pretentious, and a waste. Two hours into the ‘house-warming’ and the table was still laden with food.
I’d kept my gaze on her red frame all night, eyeing her as I tried at conversation with faces I didn’t recognise.
She hadn’t eaten a thing, and was now considerably drunk. I observed her as she clutched at her sixth cocktail, tottering skittishly in impractical shoes. She was chatting spiritedly with her friend Maggie, hanging from her arm as she did so.
Maggie; she was an infuriatingly frequent visitor to our new abode. Tall and languid, she bore a sheath of shiny blonde hair and sharp blue eyes, dainty freckles and milky-white flesh. Tonight she had donned a yellow dress, not dissimilar to my own. Noting the different ways our bodies hugged the material, I sucked in my stomach again. She hadn’t touched Aziza’s spread either; a fact grating on me more than it ought.
It was slowly dawning on me that we hadn’t invited anyone fun. Our little living area was choking with self-obsessed waifs, good for nothing but drinking the entire apartment dry. We’d fallen out of touch with our university friends in the past couple of years, and I felt a sudden pang for them. Their simplicity and stout beer drinking ways, their hankering for a good old-fashioned sausage roll after a night on the town.
None of them were here. And now I was surrounded by people I didn’t know, and I hadn’t spoken to my wife all evening. Ever the hostess, she was capering about the room, performing for all the people she’d deemed suitable for our house-warming.
A melodic tinkle pricked at my ear: Aziza’s giggle. Her and Maggie were now sliding the balcony door open, stepping through to join the plant babies.
“Very attractive woman, your wife” the large-mouthed journalist interjected, another plump olive grasped in her greasy fingers.
“She is” I agreed. Aziza seemed to be introducing Maggie to our plant babies individually now; they were both waving at the leaves dementedly, stroking the various fronds.
Maggie draped her arm over Aziza’s shoulder as they turned to look at the view. And as they looked I looked; looked at their perfect bodies, their closing proximity. They were art; red and yellow art, sculpted by God himself.
“Nice spider plants. Look a bit dry, though” the Olive Lady carried on, having emptied the plate.
Maggie was lighting a cigarette now. She clicked it to life with nimble fingers and passed it to Aziza, grinning as she did so. A hard lump unfurled in my throat as she softly grazed my wife’s hand, whispering something. And then Aziza laughed. She threw her head back and laughed; her lips drawn, pearly teeth exposed. It was a laugh I was yet to experience, a mirth I had not uncovered.
“The blonde girl she’s with is beautiful, too” the journalist nodded, patting my shoulder and scouring my frame once again.
“Same dress as you. Though perhaps you should try a darker colour next time,” she said tersely, reaching for more food.