White Rabbits at Midnight
Place des Victoires was deserted, all empty and quiet in the dry winter sun. I was not sure which way to go, or where I was going. There were streets leading in every direction away from the square. In the middle, high on a pedestal, a barelegged and bronze Louis XIV straddled a rearing bronze horse. He looked aimless, frozen like that mid-gesture, in his Roman dress and sandals.
…..I hunched a little bit to shield from the dusty wind. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the river and blowing northward. The cold radiated through me, through flesh, ribs and out the shoulder blades.
…..There was something chalky about the air. Maybe it was smog, although there had been nothing in the news about it. On smoggy days there are usually restrictions and warnings: only cars with plates ending in even numbers can drive in town, uneven numbers the next day, and so on. The elderly, those with respiratory conditions or heart problems should stay indoors and not open windows. This did not seem to be it. Still, there were no cars around.
…..The gritty wind scratched against my fat lip. I had, vainly, tried to cover the damage with lip gloss. Unfortunately, strands of my hair kept getting caught in the sticky mess. The hairs lacerated the cracked and swollen sore, which burned and gnawed at that part of the face so aptly called cupid’s bow.
…..It was a domestic incident, the fat lip. The previous evening, I had finally received a new dining table for my new apartment. A lethargic delivery guy from IKEA, called Elvis, helped me carry the surprisingly heavy box up the narrow, spiral staircase. His nametag dangled off a colourful lanyard, making an annoying clicking sound as we manoeuvred the limited space. There were many close calls when either of us could have twisted an ankle on the uneven steps, or fallen down the stairs. But that’s not how I got the injury.
…..The table was a cheap square thing made of plywood, covered in ash veneer and dark acrylic lacquer. I had bought it to replace the wobbly table that had been there before. The previous tenants had left it behind and I decided to keep it. I figured it was one less thing I needed to buy. But my friends kept making a thing of how ugly it was every time they came over. There were comments and remarks and smirks. So, there was nothing else to do but get a proper dining table and throw the wobbly one away. Other than that decorative misstep, my new place was a pretty one-bedroom apartment on Rue Perrée.
…..I made some coffee, tore open the cardboard box and set about assembling it. Six long screws, six middle screws, six short screws. Four fat wooden pegs, four slim wooden pegs, and appropriate holes to match them. A handful of loopy metal things and some planks. I felt confident that I would get this done by dinner time and have my next meal at my very own dining table that did not wobble. The evening seemed promising, somehow.
…..Hours later, the mood was different. I had not placed the planks on a blanket, as advised, and had ended up scratching the tabletop, diagonally, all across. The plywood was showing through the ash veneer. I was struggling to pull out a fat plug that I had hammered into a hole meant for a slim peg. I yanked, plyers in hand, and yanked but the damn thing was jammed in there. I pulled once more and with the full force of all the strength I had, my hand – armed with the plyers – went flying at my face, whacking my top lip head-on with the boniest part of my knuckles. My body toppled over backwards, face throbbing, seeing sparkles everywhere. I went to bed without dinner and woke up the next day as the sun glared coldly through the window.
….. And so, with an aching mouth smudged with lip gloss, I wandered around looking for a way to pass the time and think about something else, other than the present state of my home, or that I now had no table at all. The old one was in the trash and the new one was a dismembered pile of damaged parts scattered all over my apartment. I could try to assemble the thing, such as it was, or throw it on top of the old table in the dumpster. Either action seemed pyrrhic somehow.
…..I ended up at a Japanese café, down the road from Place des Victoires. It was practically empty save for an old man reading the paper in the corner. There was a nervous girl working behind the counter. As I thought of what to order, I tried chitchatting with her, but it only seemed to agitate her more. She was wired to explain all the things on offer to the guests and appeared to find small talk distracting. I’m sure she was new at the job.
…..‘Okay… let’s see…’ I said enthusiastically trying to guide the poor dear through the sale ‘I’ll have…’ I squinted at the board behind her trying to see without my contacts, which I hadn’t put in since my whole head felt bruised, even my eyeballs. ‘What’s very simple, sort of clean?’ At that moment, with my lip the way it was, it felt like any intense flavour, even sugar, might burn a hole in my face. She suggested some tea and I nodded, pointing that I would be over there, in the seat by the window. The girl exhaled a smile, happy that the transaction had not descended into pointless requests and specifications. This seemed like a place where affected people come to ask pompous questions, trying to prove they are urbane to a poor kid who just wants to make some extra cash. I felt for her, I really did.
…..The tea arrived in a glass pot with a matching glass cup. It occurred to me that the coffee cups I had ordered for my new apartment had never arrived. Did I accidentally write my old address again? I hope not. The cups I bought were also made of glass. It somehow seemed prettier than porcelain, which is almost greasy looking if it is glazed or too dull looking if it is matte. There is little difference between the two materials, really, and it was a silly distinction to make – one was clay, the other sand, one was baked dirt, the other molten dust.
…..When meteor explosions occur over a desert, the heat turns the sand below to glass. Nuclear bombs have the same effect. Cosmic airbursts too. Of course, these types of events can only make shards. But it’s fun to imagine that one day, if something was hot enough, it could vitrify dunes and pyramids, create a glass sphinx. A stellar atomic explosion making a wasteland come to life in a spectacular way.
…..The crystalised, rosy petals of tea puffed out gently and softened as they floated about, weightless in the water. Their delicately saline taste calmed my tender lip. It felt like the sea.
…..Then, so very unfortunately, in the moment I relaxed, and in a moment when the pain eased a little bit, it came over me. The one thing I wanted to think of even less than the tables or missing cups. I thought of you, naturally. I wanted to tell you about all these scattered thoughts. But you left some time ago. And in that moment the very existence of you or the sea or desert glass seemed impossible. The pale sun bleached everything dry. There was something lunar about the street outside and its wan brightness.
…..‘What are you doing tonight? You never liked New Year’s Eve. Except the end of it. When everyone is spent, when the sparkles have fizzled and the air smells of firework powder and cigar smoke and stale champagne.’ I said to you inside my head, carrying on conversations that had long since run their course, talking to you even though we no longer spoke to each other. My favourite part was always the silly superstition from childhood – at midnight, say white rabbit white rabbit then make a wish.
…..‘Gosh, things have been a drag since you left, haven’t they?’ No, no. I didn’t want to think about it. I would rather think of the tables in the dumpster. It would be awful, really dreadful, if you saw me in this state. I do not want to think about you with my banged-up head and the mess I’ve made of my house.
…..In the street, a homeless woman sat on the bone cold ground, holding a faded picture of a saint, guarding her cart of possessions, crammed with assorted debris and spare parts. The old man in the corner was gone and had left his newspaper behind. The girl at the counter was still nervous and fidgety, stammering now at a new customer who kept asking questions. He seemed like the sort of person who likes to ask questions. I pressed my fevered head against the cool window for relief.
…..What will the old man do for New Year’s Eve? Who will the nervous girl kiss at the stroke of midnight? Will this obnoxious guy still be yapping questions, as his friends count down from ten? Where will the homeless lady go? Who cares? Who cares?
…..I went and grabbed the abandoned newspaper, to see if there was something about the smog in there. And there it was. Hidden in a negligeable corner of the news… ‘those with heart problems are advised to stay indoors’. Well, clearly. It was obvious from the very look of it, from the first breath after stepping out, there was something wrong with the air outside.
…..Everything was out of order. It wasn’t just the table and cups. Hell, I had even bought silky cushions and white linen to make the place nice and soft and pretty, all those things I wasn’t at all, or wasn’t enough. Would you have stayed if I was? Though you know, as well as I, that I am no more than my shaky hands and anaemic face and sleepless nights burrowed in thoughts I cannot explain. I wish I could have explained it better to you. But it always came out as babble that made you wrinkle your nose or look away. Did you even hear the words coming from my mouth?
…..The air and my house were asphyxiating in equal measure, and so were the cushions that turned out to be too big for the sofa, and the bedlinen that turned out to be too small for the duvets, and the thought of me setting an empty, extra place at a broken table, waiting for your return. What a farce. I would have laughed but a laugh would probably tear my fat lip further.
…..My mouth was a burning chasm. I closed my eyes, thinking it would somehow stop the pain. ‘White rabbit white rabbit, make it go away. White rabbit white rabbit, turn the desert and pyramids to glass. White rabbit white rabbit, won’t you come back?’ But it wasn’t midnight and the wish was no more than aimless words that lingered in vain. Outside, the icy sun shone relentlessly. The homeless lady rambled on, rattling her broken things at passersby.
Mersiha Bruncevic is a writer based in Paris and Gothenburg. She writes a column for Review 31 and is currently working on her first novel.
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