Half Conscious

I came to Fiona’s because she lives in London, an ocean away from my fiancé. During the day, she takes me to the museums and galleries. Fiona helps art change hands for aliving.The nights are always cold and gray. Not even corners and alleys are ever truly black. Fiona touches my eyelids and asks me what I see behind them, but she won’t let me sleep in her bed. On the couch with a blanket, I ignore the phone and watch TV.

“These long, graceful hands of yours indicate intense emotions and aggression. And this one suggests a reckless streak.” On screen, square, masculine nails pinch a pale pointed ring finger. “You should be careful.” The camera pulls back to reveal the stars of No Exit, a psychic detective and a sassy, coquettish teen. This is one of the first episodes. Channel 4 shows a rerun each midnight. I’ve seen them all before, but I’m grateful for the familiarity. British television seems alien and strange.

On top of the TV set is a telephone. A little black bead flashes red, even with the ringer turned all the way down. At night the bead glitters in the dark. I try to keep my eyes on the television. It’s my fiancé calling. I wanted a clean break, but it turns out the maid of honor can’t keep a secret. If I go back, maybe I’ll have her replaced.

Mornings, I make the coffee. Fiona checks her voicemail and reports the score. Eleven messages: that’s about average. When there are only four or five I know he must have been tired. Sometimes there are nineteen or twenty-three, and I wonder if he’s been drinking whiskey or if something happened. Fiona hands me the phone and I delete each one without listening.

Then Fiona will stir her coffee and tell me her dreams. She visits the museums in her sleep, too. She is haunted by the woman under the couch at the Tate Modern. The couch is ancient and hideous, a couch that has seen several Salvation Armies and hundreds of dorm rooms. It is propped at an improbable angle in a dark room. A recording of a woman plays on a loop, her head projected onto a white pillow underneath the couch. Her eyes roll up at the underside of the sofa and she moans and shrieks ecstatically. “Oh, it’s amazing,” she cries. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” You can hear her before you get there, orgasmic sounds bouncing off bright gallery walls. The woman’s voice changes, though. She sounds as if she is in pain, as if the beauty of the couch’s bottom is making her weep. Fiona dreams that the woman gets up from under the couch. Sometimes she wants Fiona to save her. Sometimes she chases Fiona through the museum. Sometimes she wants Fiona to take her place.

“God, I want out,” sighs the sassy teen on television. She smokes and pines for the detective. Cigarettes are never as tragic or wistful as in a high school bathroom. “I want a dark, mysterious stranger to whisk me away from this burg.”

Sometimes the detective is flirtatious. Sometimes he is patronizing. It’s hard to tell how he feels. The psychic dick and the sassy teen are searching for her best friend, who is trapped in a box. A boxcar, actually, buried in the woods and accessible by a secret network of tunnels. The box is visited only by a pair of shadowy psychopaths. Possibly, they are twins. She is not the first girl in the box, but she is their favorite, and so they are dragging their feet on the actual murder. Various citizens of the small town locale cast suspicion on each other and themselves. Some one is always getting beaten or raped or drugged on No Exit. The psychic detective is prone to disturbing visions. At home, I used to watch this show with my fiancé and his best man, even though the best man said it gave him nightmares.

If I am barred from Fiona’s bed, perhaps she will join me on the couch. I convince her to watch No Exit with me. Blue television light flashes over her face while I try to explain what she has missed.

“This reminds you of the reasons you left, this program,” Fiona says, to make sure she’s got the story straight. “It reminds you of these two men.”
They sound so small, so insignificant in her mouth.

“He used to get this look in his eye,” I tell her. “My fiancé, back when he was just this guy I was dating. He said women always fell hard for his best friend. He talked about him a lot but took his time introducing us. He was afraid I’d fall hard, too.” It was true that the best man was good-looking. He wore rimless glasses and had traces of varsity athleticism fading around his shoulders. Shaggy hair with bleached-out streaks, which I suspect were professionally tended, although he’d never admit it. My fiancé was hardly unattractive, but his best friend was the one you’d look at twice.

“By the time we met, it was too late.” I tell Fiona. “The best man knew what I wouldn’t do in bed and I knew he cheated on his girlfriend before we even said hello. I don’t know which one of us he wanted for himself.” I stop talking and light a cigarette. It took a while for the best man and me to become friends.

“What do you mean?” Fiona stands and opens one of the French doors to the balcony. She settles back beside me and tucks an afghan around us.

“I don’t know.” I sigh. “Maybe I left for other reasons entirely. Like my future mother-in-law or the Provencal hydrangea centerpieces.”

Fiona laughs. “I’m glad you left, and came here.” She clasps my hand. Fiona hated her hands when we were teenagers, she thought they were mannish. I always thought they were perfect artist’s hands, long and tapered but with heavy, skilled knuckles that wrinkled like walnuts.

On screen, a cocktail waitress cries over a failed insurance fraud scheme while the psychic detective looks on, unseen. The first time this episode aired, the best man and I shared our tastes.

“I’m so in love with her,” he sighed. He said this every time the waitress showed up in her skimpy uniform.

“Really?” I said. “Her?” I never liked the waitress. She was a subplot, a boring one, always pinning her hopes on shady thugs with fast cars. The best man had poor taste in real women, too, but my fiancé had warned me not to say anything about that. I preferred the sassy teen. She skipped into the next scene, ready to solve the mystery and save her best friend.

“I’m so in love with her,” I said.
My fiancé rolled his eyes. He waited till some one ugly entered the frame, the haggard wife, scorned, unhinged, wearing an eye patch and poorly dyed red hair.

“I’m so in love with her,” my fiancé grinned. “I mean, I used to be. Then I met you, baby. You replaced the pirate lady.” It was not a compliment. It was maybe a quarter of a joke.

“You should wear an eye patch to bed,” the best man suggested.

“I’ll get an eye patch right now if you would wear it,” my fiancé said. He was still kidding.

“I don’t have an eye patch,” I said, but I do have a Mardi Gras mask like they wear at The Queen of Hearts.” It was a garish mask, gold sequins with purple feathers and green fringe. I can’t remember where I got it. The Queen of Hearts is a brothel on No Exit, where the girl in the box may or may not have worked in secret.

“Then, I would be so in love with you,” the best man said. This was how they joked, my fiancé and his best friend, in echoes and refrains, beating every little thing into the ground.

Fiona takes me to a party thrown by an artist whose work she is representing. “We are a couple of sexy bitches,” she says.

I’m pleased Fiona thinks I look sexy. But she seems to be on the prowl. The music at artists’ parties is always bad and loud. We drink fast and order another round. The bartender winks and I try to look bored, like a sexy bitch.

“Here’s the artist.” Fiona snakes her fingers around the artist’s thin arm as she walks by.

“Darling. I’m so glad you’re here.” The artist pretends she is talking to both of us. “Are you having fun? Is Jonny being nice?”

The bartender winks.

“He’s darling,” says Fiona.

“Find me later.” The artist squeezes Fiona’s hand and walks away. She smiles.

I say I’m bored.

“You can go if you want, love.” She slides her key out of her purse and holds it out. She is already watching the artist across the room, and if I leave now I’ll get back to the couch in time for No Exit.

“I always knew once I found you, you’d never leave,” the haggard, unhinged, one-eyed woman says. She is pretending to forgive her unfaithful husband. She suspects he might know the location of the girl in the box.

In bed one night, my fiancé said, “Get that mask.”

“Really? I was just kidding.” The mask was on a stick, not an elastic string. It would be pointed and unwieldy in bed.


I went to the closet and rummaged. The mask dangled by a nail through an eyehole. I stepped out of the closet wearing the yellow hat and goose bumps. My fiancé didn’t smile. I held the mask over my eyes. The fringe hung past my chin. He pulled me down and rolled me over on my back. I lay there and peered out through the sequins.

On No Exit, the coquettish teen went undercover at The Queen of Hearts. A voluntary mission designed to win the confidence of the detective. She got stage fright with her first client and wore a little pink mask to disguise her identity. She escaped unscathed, but I can’t remember how. The night we watched that episode, my fiancé was working late. The best man put a hand on my leg.

“Maybe if we don’t touch each other,” I said.

He squeezed my knee. “You mean you’d let me watch?”

“Stand over there.” I lay on the couch and he stood up.

The coffee table was between us. He unzipped and looked at me.

“I’m not getting naked.”

“Could you take your shirt off?”

“But not the bra.” I swept my t-shirt over my head and fished the vibrator out from a shoebox beneath the sofa. I pulled my skirt up to my hips and turned it on.

“Put it in,” he whispered. “Inside.” I complied and he moaned a little. “You wish it were me.”

I pulled it out and closed my eyes. I could hear him breathing.

Some people are starting to believe the girl in the box is dead. Even the brazen teen has her doubts. She’s distracted by love. The girl in the box is starting to despair. She might be a little psychic herself. She might also be giving in, finally, to the twin’s manipulation. “They’ve forgotten you,” the twins whisper when they come to the girl in the box. “They’ve stopped looking. You might as well be dead.”

Kristen O’Toole is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, an agent’s assistant, and a contributor to flavorwire.com. Her work has appeared on anderbo.com, where she is an Associate Editor, and is forthcoming in Flatmancrooked and Gigantic.