Sol knew the signs. He saw her face grow silent, light scrubbed from her eyes and cheeks and lips, her voice falling to a whisper. He had seen that face a hundred times. He knew what would happen.
She was taking on the person at the other end of the table. Bear had been half-serious, definitely half-drunk, when the two had compared their social media profiles. His was plastered with pictures of his sketches, his four thousand followers sweating over his every pencil stroke. Ninety-six people followed her tirades on the state of the world. “Slow and steady,” he told her, “that’s how you win this fucking race!” She leaned forward, tracing with one finger, the circle her beer bottle had left on the table. “Why does there have to be a race? Why does anyone have to win anything? What is the frigging prize?”
Sol had tried to help her. Before. Tried to hold the past back so she could walk ahead. Tried to hold her head up every time she wanted to give in. He never could. She would gather herself, picking all the broken parts from the floor, always a few less, always a few shattered, glue herself together and pretend it was the last time. The first time. She wouldn’t acknowledge the pain. She wouldn’t admit to his presence.
“That’s the problem with that story. As if the tortoise had a choice. As if he could have gone any faster. As if he stood a bloody chance. As if late in the night, alone, he would believe that he had actually won. A freak accident isn’t a victory march, is it?” Her voice was cold. He sighed. Some people carry the world on their backs and blame themselves for every star that slips and falls. Shit happens to everyone. If only he could make her see that.
“As for that dumb hare, you think he cared? He probably laughed hard over drinks at the bar and forgot all about it the next morning. As if he would ever lose again to the tortoise, any tortoise. You think someone would change their lives because they got beaten one afternoon? How many races does it take to see a pattern? How many races does it take to believe the pattern? How many before you begin to accept the blame?”
He remembered the first time he had watched her come apart. It was easier then. There used to be tears. There used to be disbelief. Slowly, she had learnt to bear her cross – the abandonment, the mediocrity, the struggle, the darkness. The failure. She had weaned herself away from needing his protection. Anyone’s protection. She couldn’t build her life on another fault line, she said. He had ended up doing exactly that.
“The view that everyone with a constraint can overcome it. That everything is controllable. That somehow the underdog will win, must win. That such an expectation is okay. Is necessary. The whole idea is how the unconstrained gaslight the struggle. Creating the barrier. Raising the barrier. Over and over again.”
He could never convince her that it was okay. What she saw in the mirror was a universe in its darkest shades. A lopsided searchlight that exposed her every scar. She laughed when he called her strong, when he called her persistent, when he called her beautiful. Don’t patronize me, she said. You don’t have my life.
Bear called her early. To apologize, she thought. He was alright, even if he could be a cocky son-of-a-gun. He wore his luck, lightly. She would give him that much.
He did say sorry. But it wasn’t about the previous night. It was about…a body.
Afterwards, she could never remember what he had actually said. Or what happened the next day. The next week. They had found Sol in his bathroom, slashed and bloody. The last thing he had said to her as they we leaving that night was that as far as he was concerned, race or no race, she had won a long time ago.