Women are like drinks – you should never mix them, or else the result is invariably a terrible headache – and at some level of consciousness, I had been always careful to keep Renata and Tori separate, as one may exclusively drink vodka on one evening and wine the next. I think that on a similarly subliminal level, both women had acknowledged the wisdom of this distinction. In a medieval society, they could have waged a death feud against one another – to win all of me for themselves – but our world no longer extends such opportunities. If my life was a nest of compartments, both women had to remain in their little boxes.
I was on conspiratorial terms with both women, but if one day put on the spot, I would have to choose between them, and I had no idea who I would take into my confidence and who would come to be viewed from a certain distance.
One Saturday evening, Renata and I had put our heads together over drinks in the Dome, on George Street, when I found myself gazing at Tori, who was seated at an opposite table, as suddenly bright as if a shaft of light had fallen on to her through a canopy overhead. Tori is the sort of person who can always be found sitting inexplicably in random bars. I was then conscious that Renata had also seen her.
“There’s your friend,” Renata pointed out.
“We’ll have to invite her over,” I decided grimly.
“I’ll text her,” I said, fumbling for my phone.
“Let’s wait until she’s seen us,” Renata ventured, as if daring to hope that Tori would sit there for the next hour without noticing us. Perhaps if we both continued to stare at her, she would not look up.
“There’s no need to be shy. She’s very nice.”
Renata refused to believe me – indeed, she quivered with a little indignant spurt. “She always thinks that she’s so much better than me – better than everyone!”
“Well, maybe she is,” I suggested.
“She always talks like she’s so clever, but she hasn’t even been to university,” Renata persisted.
“Like you,” I added quietly, completing the line of reasoning.
“She should dress her age – that plastic jacket is meant for a teenager – and she’s still ugly, even with all that makeup. I mean, she looks like a horse.”
Something seemed to take a great bite out of my lungs and I snorted beer out of my nose. Renata had turned to eye me with amusement as I pawed at my streaming face, my nostrils bubbling with fizz.
I have known Tori for years, but it had never occurred to me how much she looks like a horse – the long bony face, that mane of unruly hair, it was now all so unexpectedly clear. I recoiled in horror.
“Biggy!” Tori cooed at me from her table.
You look like a horse, I thought helplessly.
“May I join you? Hello Renata. How are you?”
“Okay, thank you…”
She even looks like a horse in profile, I despaired. How was I to expel this thought from my mind? – it seemed to be burning through all of my brain cells like a poisonous acid, and permanently changing everything. Perhaps I would have to submit to hypnosis, as the only means of wiping away this unwelcome enlightenment. For me, Tori was now totally ruined – her resemblance to a horse was virtually glowing. I remonstrated feebly with myself: how could I have been so stupid to have never seen the likeness before?
Tori smiled at me – like a horse – and she seemed to whinny with pleasure. “It’s so sweet to see you two together – Biggy deserves a good woman, I lie awake at night worrying about it.”
Renata smiled, although it looked oddly like the smile on the face of another person. “There is always his wife,” she rebuked Tori. The thought of my wife reached me like a distant groan from the central heating.
“Yes but she depends upon him – because she is still only fifteen – whilst he needs a sturdy rock of his own.” Tori has this annoying habit of correcting other people’s preconceptions about my life, like a Marxist who never stops explaining how the economy really works. “Of course, it would be so much easier if he was established with a man – a beautiful Brazilian toyboy – or somebody like Marcin, for example – but Biggy thinks that this is too easy, and he feels obliged to persist with women, merely because he finds it difficult.”
You are monstrous, I thought – sitting there, with your hooves on the table, like a jolly talking horse.
“Come and have a cigarette with me, Biggy” Tori commanded, rising from her seat.
Renata seemed to frown at me without changing her facial expression. “No thank you,” I said politely.
“I’ll come,” Renata offered. As Tori cantered towards the door, Renata hissed at me and flung her arms about in a little fury. “See!”
I could not see. “What? What has she done?”
“She wants to take you away to smoke and leave me here all by myself!”
“Oh Renata!” I laughed. “You’ve been thinking about this too much. It’s making you all weird and paranoid…”
Renata looked at me as if I could not be more unimpressive, before turning to follow Tori.
They were probably chatting happily outside, like two actresses smoking together backstage. They were probably talking about who was going to be voted off some television programme, or about the roadworks on Princes Street. The friction between them – Renata’s insatiable jealousy of Tori, and Tori’s tendency to speak about Renata as if she was a talented little schoolgirl who was constantly charming everybody – only made sense when I was there to watch. These two were like housewives who only become wicked in a forest clearing under the horns of the devil.
They both returned to my table, looking aired and reinvigorated, and I ordered a bucket full of a watery cocktail solution. I reflected that all of the times I had been partying with Tori – all of the nights when I had made love to her – she had been nothing but a great big horse, neighing and tossing her frisky horse face, and I had been completely innocent of the fact. I had now hit the ground with a bump. You’re a horse, you’re a horse, you’re a horse, I repeated to myself, as if it would eventually wear off.
I later emerged from the gents and Tori was waiting in the shadow of a palm tree, another cigarette in her hands. I stole up behind her and shook her lightly by the shoulders.
When she turned, I found myself shrinking back – the world seemed to slide away unexpectedly, and for a moment I thought that I was having a seizure. It was not Tori but Renata. The way she had been standing – with her head turned away from me and her face concealed behind a heap of straggling blond hair – had created the illusion.
“My God, Renata, you’re trying to kill me! I thought you were Tori!”
“I don’t know why. My God, I can’t breathe – it’s like something has been dancing on my grave.”
Renata beamed and then her face was wreathed with smiles. I have never seen her look so beautifully happy.
Renata looks nothing like a horse, I told myself, and yet she had looked oddly like Tori.
Maybe the situation was not so desperate.