What do you tell? he begins.
What do you tell a woman?
In the bar she closes her eyes, momentarily. When she opens them she sees that nobody is looking at her.
What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? is the joke.
She turns her face away, towards the bar, for the punch line. She sees that there are stained-glass light shades hanging above the counter, the glass pieces coloured red, green and yellow, the joins thick and black. She looks at the electric beer signs on the back wall, behind the shelves for glasses and bottles of liquor, and practises the pronunciation of the syllables in her head: Puntigamer, Murauer, Zipfer, Stiegl.
It’s still early, and a weeknight. The bar is almost empty, and quiet but for their voices and the voices at another table, farther away. The figures at the second table are murky silhouettes, as is the barman, distant from here. She watches as he collects emptied beer jugs, and hears the sound of glass against glass as their sides knock together.
Soon it is later, the bar fuller, bodies so close that she can hardly make them out properly in the light and shadows that pass across skin and hair, eyes and mouths. Voices rise and fall with their speakers’ chests and hands and eyelids, and there are words and phrases she knows, but not altogether. At the counter she orders and pays for another jug and carries it, slippery and cold between her palms, back to their table.
Later still, walking home to his flat along the tramlines, she watches for snow, and – because she raised the joke with him, after – he doesn’t speak to her. He walks ahead, his head down, shoulders rounded inside his winter coat. They follow the tram route, number six; the one they would take if it were still running now.
The Americans they’d been sitting with, she remembers – other Erasmus students – hadn’t laughed. She had noticed that, even feigning distraction, and she had been silently grateful. They had started to talk of other things. Then somebody had bought the next round, and someone else another after that, until last drinks. They’d wandered out into the narrow alley, onto the cobbles where she’d watched for gaps between stones that might trip her. Quickly the group had waved each other off and dispersed. The streets in their direction were so suddenly emptied.
Walking, she keeps her head lifted, her eyes just above the rooflines. It would be late season snow by now, if any were to fall. Easter is early this year, closer than the Christmas just gone. As they cross the Hauptplatz, hollow and still, she recalls when it was strung with tiny firs, upside down like stalactites. The trees were such a dark green they had appeared black against the sky.
When she looks down, she sees how the tramlines are polished by wear. How they gleam opaquely, the way ice does. She thinks of lakes whose deep middles are too cold to swim in, even in the summer. One of the first weekends, not long after they’d arrived, they’d hired an Opel and driven to Leopoldsteinersee, and even the shallows there had quickly chilled the bones in her feet.
She looks ahead again and he is even farther away than before. She has between here and the front door of his flat to get him to talk, if she wants him to. Once the flat is unlocked and they are inside, he won’t want to argue. Not even in whispers and in English, and not even if his flatmates are in bed.
She can picture already what his face will look like: that face he does, his hurt worn deliberately, held in place. He won’t speak until they are alone together in the flat, or until he’s stretched the silence to his satisfaction. He’s a nice guy, he will say then, and she made him feel otherwise because of the joke, which was just a joke. Which was funny.
She wonders whether she will tell him what she should tell him, or swallow the half-formed sentences that come up with her breath. The stairwell turns two corners on itself before reaching the second floor. Already the sound of his footsteps has stopped. All the beer she drank is heavy in her body and light in her head, but she moves quietly, every noise she makes muffled.
Whatever comes next, she already knows the after. How she will turn the lights on as she needs them and then off again; brush her teeth and spit, and swipe off her makeup with witch hazel and cotton wool that belongs to one of his housemates. That she’ll lie next to him in the dark and imagine her two eyes black in ways he never has.
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