“I got you an iced cappuccino,” Karla said, smiling with her mouth only, eyebrows immobile. “It’s the first thing I wanted when I came out,” she said, with little emotion.
“Thank you,” replied Myra in a low, slow, Manchester husk having entered the coffee shop just as Karla left the counter carrying the two plastic cups of sweet, cold coffee. Karla held the cups together in both hands, welcoming the sensation of coldness, as one might lovingly caress a mug of hot coco on a frozen mid-January evening.
“Let’s sit over there in the corner near the window,” Myra suggested. “These days I can’t be doing with not seeing out.” She led the way, weaving between busy tables filled with unaware coffee lovers, Karla steps behind.
There were students glued to their laptops, lovers glued to and mirroring one another (as those blindly in love will do), elderly couples sipping silently, and small groups heavily discussing their own trials and tribulations. A few people took notice of the women, one in her early thirties, no longer particularly striking, meriting little out-of-the-ordinary attention, other than, of course, her infamy. There were looks of disbelief and shock-horror, but still, disbelief overriding.
Karla sat down with her back to the window. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to look out, rather she didn’t want the outside looking in.
“I missed these,” she said softly, blandly, in her original Southern Ontario English, only hints of her current Quebec French peeking through, and took an equally soft mouthful of cappuccino up through the straw. Then she admitted, “Like a drug. Once you start, you don’t know how to stop.” And she proceeded to suck up three quarters of the creamy, sweet, golden liquid with the desire of a teenaged girl experiencing her first French kiss with the man she’s been desperately in love with for months.
“Yes!” Myra agreed. “And don’t I know it.”
“C’est la vie,” whispered Karla, seemingly to herself, after swallowing the contents of her mouth and licking her lips, her head hanging low, eyes now focused on the pair of hands caressing her cup as condensation dribbled onto the cheap laminate table between them. Her eyes held there for a moment longer, and then she raised her gaze slightly and looked Myra in the eyes, choosing to lift her eyelids rather than bring her face up to meet Myra’s. This emphasized the depth of the cold whiteness laying deep below her irises, and then she broke contact, seeing that Myra’s eyes mirrored her own, and again scanned the coffee shop, squinted and pursed the downward sloping sides of her lips. They must all remember, even here in the relative obscurity of this little-known place on the far outskirts of Montreal. She was beginning to regret her choice of inward-facing seat.
“So, how’s life treating you, then?” Myra asked huskily, bringing Karla back to her attention.
“It’s what I expected,” she replied, her head still bowed. “Better than being where you are though, I’m sure.”
Myra let out a short, cough-like laugh, the kind common in a 60-year-old chain smoking woman. “What I want to know though, love, is if you’ve talked to him yet since you’ve been out?”
Karla turned her eyes again toward the people sitting inside the coffee shop and breathed out heavily through her nose, mouth tight, eyebrows scrunching up the wrinkles between them. Without returning back to Myra she answered, “I told you. I don’t want to talk about him.”
“Karla, it’s me you’re talking to, not the bloody press.” Karla returned her downward gaze into Myra’s eyes.
“No.” She paused. “I’m not allowed, even if I wanted to. But I don’t.”
“I talk to Neddy sometimes. He never bloody answers me though. I don’t think he hears me now.”
“It’s probably better that way,” Karla muttered under her breath, full knowing Myra could hear everything in her head.
“What you need to do, my girl, is try to believe that you never would’ve done those things if you’d never met that man.”
“I’ve spent over 12 years trying to convince people of that. The problem is, I think they don’t believe me.”
“But, do you believe it? That’s what matters.”
Karla picked up her cappuccino, guided the straw into her mouth with gentle fingertips and pulled up the remains slowly through the red plastic tube, methodically, all the while staring into the eyes across the table, the eyes that were here own.
“Never mind then, eh?” Myra said. “Better not to think about it.”
Karla let out a deep sigh. “You know, I fucked him the first night we met. That was my mistake.”
“No, love. It wouldn’t have mattered. Half the time Neddy ignored me and the other half he treated me like an imbecile. Made me want him more, that did. And I knew I’d get him in the end.”
“I suppose you’re right. But once I had him, I wanted to get inside of him, you know. Wanted to be with him so much I almost wanted to be him.”
“Yes,” replied Myra. “It’s the problem of being a woman. I don’t think men ever feel that, do they? It’s only woman that seem to have that kind of desperation.”
“No,” Karla insisted, though not with any force of voice. “You’re wrong. Men have it too, but they express it through violence.”
“Suppose you’re right, there. Our men did, anyway.”
“And we helped them,” Karla whispered, again hoping to conceal her thoughts, knowing it was impossible.
“We did that, an’ all.”
The two sat silently for a few minutes. People continued to love, discuss, sip, and steal quizzical glimpses while Karla sat thinking. The coffee shop was packed, becoming more uncomfortable as the minutes ticked by, as more and more eyes darted in her direction. She wanted to get up and walk out, get in the car and drive away.
“Just stay with me here for a while longer, love. Ignore them,” Myra insisted, slowly, never in a rush. “I don’t get this opportunity very often, you know. No-one talks to me any more. Most folk only ever think of that photo they took of me back then, and they don’t want to know any more than that.”
“Your infamy has an advantage over mine, Myra,” Karla said flatly.
“How’s that, then?” Myra queried.
“I’ve still got to live with mine,” was Karla’s response. “I told them if I could, I’d go back and change everything.”
“Would you though?” Myra rasped.
“That’s what I told them. If they believe me, maybe I can believe it, too.”
“I think,” Myra started slowly, “if he’d have given you the attention you deserved you would never have been jealous enough to want those girls gone.”
“Jealousy. Yes. Maybe that’s what it’s all about, in the end,” said Karla.
Karla glared out at all who were looking in her direction before giving her answer. They were sheepish, unsure, but looking all the same. She responded, now with the school-girl voice she was remembered for, almost as though she were addressing her audience.
“We were the perfect couple. Everyone said it. My parents loved him, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I wanted to keep him happy so we could carry on living the life everyone saw.”
“Hmm. Ken and Barbie, just like the Americans said. But why did you stay even when he beat you with those torches?”
“You’re asking me that question? You know the answer. You told your mother how he treated you. You knew it was an abusive relationship. Why did you stay?”
“Because women do, don’t they, love. Especially us that don’t know how to stand up by our own two legs, back straight with confidence. People think it’s easy to just get up and walk out.” Myra paused, then began again. “Men don’t know anything about women. And women don’t even know about themselves most of the time. You meet a man, when you’re very young, and he gives you attention as you’ve never known, and you’d walk the fires of Hell for him.”
“In your case, literally,” added Karla.
“Well. Yes. There you have it then. Maybe we saved some of them young lasses from Hell in the end?” Myra pondered.
“What about the boys?” Karla asked.
“Yes. The boys were my mistake. But now at least they might not turn out like our lads, eh?”
“They’re not all like Neddy and Paul.”
“No. Fair enough,” admitted Myra. “But more like as not, there’s lots of folk think about it, I’m certain.”
“But they don’t do it.” Karla sighed.
“And I don’t know what stops them. If I’d have known that, I wouldn’t be here, would I? And you wouldn’t be sat there talking to a ghost.”
“True enough,” she sighed again. “But what’s done is done. There’s nothing either of us can do about it now. And I have to try to carry on with some kind of normality.”
“What the bloody hell is normal then, eh? There’s plenty of people behave like us and our lads did. Aren’t they just as normal as those that don’t?”
“I don’t know any more. I don’t think I ever thought about it. All I thought about was pleasing Paul. He was everything. Nothing else mattered,” Karla said, no longer in her school-girl voice.
“They both conditioned us, you know,” insisted Myra, still gruffly and slowly. “Made me read all kinds of books, did Neddy, and we watched all those videos of Hitler for God’s sake. I should have bloody seen what was coming. But then again, truth be told, I think I did see. It’s exactly what I wanted”
“I knew,” said Karla. “I knew as soon as he asked me for my sister.”
“And she was your mistake, eh? Your downfall. I suppose once you let him get away with her, there was no turning back?”
“I so wanted to please him. Give him everything. My jealousy was unbearable.”
“So, you’re saying you were responsible for her then, are you?”
“No.” Karla said, gently. “He made me love him. Made me do it.”
“But would we have loved them like we did if we were more stable in ourselves?” Myra asked.
“I don’t know. But that’s what I have to live for now. I have to try to be a different person. Not just so they won’t hate me. I have no expectations of changing that. Just so that I can go forward and figure out how to love better.”
“But you chose another bad one, didn’t you love?”
“Who else would have me?” Karla said, and reached across the table for the second cappuccino and began sipping lightly from the red straw.
“I suppose we got what we deserved, eh?” Myra said.
“Not sure everyone would agree with you on that, at least in my case,” replied Karla.
The busy coffee shop was buzzing with energy, talk, love and desperation. A young man, long beard and beanie cap walked over to Karla’s table, probably too young, she thought, to remember.
“Is anyone using this chair?” he asked her, pointing to the chair across from her.
“No. It’s yours. Take it,” Karla answered, emotionless.
She sat there for a full five minutes, unable to move, but wanting to leave, sipping from her second cappuccino, though she was already feeling slightly sick; whether from the abundance of cream and sugar, or from the thoughts in her psychopathic head, she didn’t know, or care.
Finally, she stood up and walked out, back straight, got into her car and drove away.