I ask Rat Girl how the flat hunting’s going and she says, ‘Great!’ Tells me she signed up for a boob job with her deposit money. It’s scheduled for next week. She presents this as serendipity though she doesn’t know the word. Then she smiles, shrugs, flips her hair. She’s learned this works on men. Sees my face. Switches tactics.
‘The whole thing was a BIG mistake,’ she says, gesturing with her bad arm then wincing as if I can’t see the cast. The marks around her neck have faded. She didn’t need to explain they weren’t love bites. She’s good at picking moments to bring up her car-crash marriage and how it spun out of control after just six months.
I hold up a stop-sign hand. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘We talked about this. You need your own place.’
What no one talks about when they talk about needing to talk is the listening.
It’s just as important. Probably more. In the three weeks Rat Girl’s been here, there’s been encyclopaedic levels of talking. Twitter levels of listening.
Now she’s talking about the cosmetic surgery place. The free consultation included complimentary chai-lattes. Her favourite. A sign. Since losing all that weight from those diet pills she found online, her nipples reach her belly button. She offers to show me if I’m in any doubt. I shake my head.
‘I’m only twenty-five,’ she says. ‘I need to fix this. Before another husband.’
‘Another one?’ I say.
‘A better one,’ she says.
I sigh. Try to steer her back to the point at hand — moving out. But she’s moved on — talking about the date she’s arranged with her plastic surgeon.
Rat Girl’s real name is long and complicated and sounds like a whisper. She and my flatmate are old friends from their home country. They reconnected by chance, he tells me, at a photography networking event. She had the biggest camera and the prettiest smile. When he invites her over for dinner she tells us her photos have won awards, featured in a prize-winning book. Only, she’s had a falling out with the writer. And the publisher, so she isn’t listed in the credits.
‘But I kept the camera,’ she says with a winning smile and a toss of her long blonde hair. Adds, ‘Your place is so big.’
When she comes to my flatmate’s birthday party, she brings her husband-to-be. They both hold green belts in karate. Decided they were meant to be when they discovered they had the same tattoo inked onto the same body part. I don’t ask which part. While everyone else is dancing in the lounge, husband-to-be gathers all the party balloons and stomps on them.
When Rat Girl asks to stay at ours, I do my best to quash hints of hesitancy: it seems bad form to ask how long as she sobs down the phone. I’m sympathetic to her plight, but I can’t shake the thought of feeling like a domino. With their shared history, I know my flatmate will say yes. He was the designated photographer at her wedding: a registry office somewhere in Leytonstone, on a rainy Tuesday in March.
I don’t go. Not many do. Afterwards, I see image after image of the blurred, washed-out couple, out-of-focus witnesses, lots of cut-off heads. Very few decent photos. I ask my flatmate what he’s going to do. He shrugs, ‘She knows I’m not a people person.’
His boyfriend adds, ‘They should have had a gay wedding.’
When Rat Girl sees the photos, she smiles. Plucks two from the pile. In both, his eyes are closed while she seems to be squinting. Or winking. She says the photos capture the day perfectly. Invites us to the pub for a celebratory drink. Says she’ll get her Right to Remain now.
She arrives with three bin bags and a ginormous suitcase. Two bags contain Minnie Mouse headbands; the suitcase, cosmetics. She says there’s one more thing to bring: her free-range rat — Ratty. She informs us that rats are incontinent. Our flat is mostly carpeted. Ratty will need free run in the kitchen. My flatmate leaves for Spain for two weeks with his boyfriend, promising he’ll tell her to move out when he comes back.
I spend more time in my bedroom. Eat a lot of take-aways. Dig out my own wedding photos. There’re only a few. Most didn’t turn out. The photographer had a slight sight impairment, they said. He was the only one available on a Wednesday morning. In the excitement of eloping, it hadn’t mattered. He still captured tight smiles, unsure eyes. I remember the hope, the doubt, making a wish it would all turn out. ‘We were different,’ I whisper.
I try not to think about how, for a while after my marriage failed, I used a different name. Dated designer-bearded men with names like Bongo who spent Saturday afternoons in coffee shops. Had affairs with married men. Paid a lot of money for negative-heel technology trainers that expended three calories per step instead of just one. Drank too much.
I cut the photos into strips, then pieces. Put them in the bin. Get out my passport. Flip to the page where my Right to Remain stamp is pasted. Trace its rough edges.
In the kitchen, Ratty’s perched on Rat Girl’s shoulder, nibbling her ear, tail curled around her nearly-healed neck.
‘The secret is finding a man who loves you like a rat,’ she says.
I could respond. Say something like rebounding doesn’t work. Boob jobs don’t fix anything, rats don’t make good kitchen companions, good will is rarely indefinite and nobody likes being used. But I don’t. There’s no point in talking when truths are hard to hear. Instead, I announce we’re getting a cat.