The neighbours all thought we were con artists. Maybe they were right. We met while waiting to view the apartment and pretended to be sisters to charm the landlord. It was never about influence. It was only about shelter. We just wanted to escape the heat. The ruse was instantly believable, even to us. Our hair always seemed braided together and anything that found its way into our pockets had joint ownership. I could never get through an entire hard candy without my teeth aching, so she finished them. Vice versa with cigarettes. She wiped sweat from the corners of my eyes. I chewed her used gum to save money. The apartment only had one bedroom and we slept there with fans pleating from every angle. I’d promised I was a still sleeper but found myself waking up counter-clockwise with her knee against my eye or my nose cogged into her bellybutton more times than I can count. Headlights jittered through the blinds all night, watercolouring our bedsheets. I said the colours looked like bruises; she said they looked like a heart monitor. Now, I can’t unsee it. It was never about wanting to kiss her. It was only about mortality. She was more comfortable with decay: frequently cut her hair, treated our kitchen like a greenhouse, hand-fed me plumes of basil and tarragon so sweet in their smallness. I spent so many nights begging her for mercy, to put away the laundry. In these memories, her voice and mine and are indistinguishable. We soaked in the bathtub to escape the heatwave, an attempt to womb ourselves despite knowing nothing of each other’s infancies. She had the persona of someone born premature, determined to emerge as her preferred astrological sign. And what is goodness, really, if not one’s proximity to being unborn? No wonder we wanted to return to that state. We always felt underwater: our bedroom fishtanked by night, the air so humid with mold our hair never dried. She called us sea sponges. I felt we were more like candles, embalmed in our own melting. Most days, still, I felt winged. Not weightless, but like something was tugging me up by the hooks of my shoulders. She claimed her father was the king of a piano empire, and I thought, why are you here?Yet I always believed her. I still do. She listened to eerie concertos that were the iciest thing to touch me all summer, the music frosting my nape as I leaned over the sun-ironed balconette, her arms looped over her head like a waifish figure skater. It was never about beauty. It was only about presence. We didn’t talk about how we made money. I had a magazine internship and delivered take-out by bike to make rent. She claimed to work at a theatre house. All I know is that she came home smelling like acetone, feeling radioactive. We didn’t have a kitchen table so sat cross-legged on the floor, spiralling buttered noodles onto our forks and eating canned chickpeas with chopsticks. We didn’t bother trying to scrub off the lichen lacing our bathroom mirror or the mildew suturing our kitchen tile. We’d be gone by the end of summer. By the time we left, the entire apartment had a tinge of green. It was the only place we felt organic. It was never about autonomy. It was only about oxygen. And in the end, everyone was right: when we moved out, we sliced the tapestry we’d used as a rug right down the middle in the name of fairness, but she took our damage deposit and fled without leaving a phone number. I didn’t see her again until her face and shoulders started appearing in perfume ads, postered on bus stops or in magazines that rustled through the cream-soda sky and landed right in my palms. She was clothed in ribbon or mist or champagne, laid against a background of cherries or seashells or gossamer. Her eyes weren’t the exact colour I remembered, sleepy instead of starry. I didn’t know if it was a camera trick or my own faulty memory. Maybe she was just good at her job. Maybe I’d never seen her right. Maybe I was the only who ever had. It was never about intimacy. It was only about time. I shouldn’t think myself so special, but it always felt like she was looking right at me.
Shaelin Bishop (they/she) lives and writes on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh land. Their fiction has appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, Room, CAROUSEL, Plenitude, PRISM international, The New Quarterly, The Common, and elsewhere. They were longlisted for the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize. They can be found on Twitter and Instagram @shaelinbishop.