You wait for the shadow men in rooms with leather couches where the curtains are always drawn. You read articles in Hello in which women talk about their latest boyfriends, and reveal surprising hobbies. Next to you someone picks up a magazine and shows you photos of the royal babies. She asks you, don’t you think they look cute, and you say no, that they look like all other babies in the world. She says you will feel differently when you have one of your own. She has six, she tells you, but they don’t live with her anymore. They were uplifted eight months ago, and she hasn’t seen them since. That is a lot of children, you say but she says it’s not really, not if you have your first one at fifteen.
The shadow men live in the rooms with red light bulbs. They lie on beds that have no headboards and ask you to rub oil into their backs. Then they turn over. The shadow men are everywhere. They stand in front of you in supermarket queues. They sit beside you on the bus and when you enter a room at a dinner party they say, ‘hey don’t I know you from somewhere?’ Then they look at their wives and say it must have been from that Saturday morning yoga class and you say yeah, even though you don’t own a yoga mat.
She tells you how she left them in McDonalds one night. That one off Great North Road. And you say that you know the place. She bought them all Happy Meals and she told them to wait for her, while she went for a drink with a mate. It was only supposed to be a quick one, but you know how it is, and you say you do. The police picked up the kids on Karangahape Road. They were making their way here, to find her and apparently they weren’t even crying, just walking along silently in the dark.
You tell her that it is easy to forget things, and you once left your makeup bag on a bus. It was expensive to replace it all and you had to buy the cheap stuff until you could afford MAC.
The shadow men think you are stupid, well they hope you are. They want to save you from yourself, but not too much. They don’t like you to talk, except to tell them they are the most amazing man you have ever had. You say it because you are bored and want them to finish.
The shadow men live in houses with their families. They have baby seats in the back of their cars. They tell you to wait while they put them into the boot. They say that it is their friend’s car, not theirs. They pretend they are unfamiliar with the car and can’t find their wallet in the glove box, until you start getting out. Then they remember where it is. Sometimes the cars have diplomatic number plates and they lock all the doors.
The shadow man tells you he has a daughter and she looks just like you. He loves her, he says, as he slams his body into yours. You have blood in your mouth from where you have bitten your tongue. You have the odour of apple shampoo on your fingers from where you have touched his thinning hair. There is nothing about the smell of apples you will ever like again.
The shadow men like to have sex with you when you are tied up. They like to have sex with you when you have your period. They’re scared of catching AIDS, but they think you look clean. They like to have sex with you when you are drunk. They like to have sex with you when you are unconscious. They like to have sex with you when there are four of them and just one of you. They like to have sex with you, but you are ambivalent.
She cries and says that you are the only one who really understands her and that if your next client is fat and ugly she will do him for you. You say thanks, and you pour her a glass of vodka. You pick up a Cosmopolitan and read the shocking sex confessions. You read them out loud in a fake voice until you make her laugh. You drink vodka until even the royal babies begin to look cute. A man comes in with a towel wrapped around his body. His stomach spills out over the top of it and you hear someone say,
‘Who wants to go next?’
She stands up and smiles at you. She pulls a face behind his back. You put your fingers in your mouth to imitate vomiting. She grins and rolls her eyes. You read another magazine and wait for the next shadow man.
The shadow men like to listen to you beg for your life. They like the sound your bones make as they crack and then shatter on the concrete, when you jump out of their moving cars. They’d kill you if they could, if only there wasn’t a law against it. They kill you anyway and you walk around pretending you are alive. It is only when you see your eyes in the mirror as you are reapplying your lipstick that you know that you have long since abandoned your body, and you don’t know who lives there now.
The shadow men call you a bitch, a slut and a whore. They want you to be their mothers, their daughters, but never their wives. You have a cut in the corner of your lip, it doesn’t heal. You press your fingertips sequentially on the small bruises on your inner thighs, they don’t match yours. You have a bloody graze on your knee and its sticks to your bed sheets. The shadow men watch you bleed. They think you like it, and sometimes you do.
You walk home along Karangahape Road, past the overflowing trash cans. Rubbish trucks sweep by you with methodical menace. You step over the vomit and broken glass. The sun is rising. It is reflecting off the windows of the adult shops. You shield your eyes. A woman staggers out of a doorway. She walks straight at you.
‘Step you out for your leather jacket.’
It’s vinyl you tell her, because it really is. She says, sorry mate but it looks like leather and you say, I know, right. She stares at you for a longer minute. The alcohol is still warm in your blood, so you hold her glance too, but you think she’d be high maintenance. Instead you buy a pie from the dairy and walk home. You draw your curtains, so your room is in shadows. You sleep.
How many shadow men does it take to change a light bulb? None, because there will always be rooms with red light bulbs and this will never change. If you were a moth circling that red light bulb on the ceiling, you might pause in your lonely orbit and, looking down through your compound eyes, you would see hundreds of images of that same girl, rubbing oil into the back of a rich fat, old, man. You would see him turn over and his enormous oiled belly wobbling as he reaches for her. You would see him push her head down between his legs.
But what would you think if you were that moth? Don’t you know anything? Moths don’t have opinions. They have an anti-reflective coating on their eyes, which means that they might not see anything at all.
Listen to Lynne Robertson read Shadow Men
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lynne Robertson lives in Wellington and has completed an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University. Her thesis includes short stories about a cross-dressing child who gets pelted with rocks inside a chicken coop, murderous children, a call centre worker who dreams of Mars and a Cambodian male prostitute who wants a nose like Kim Kardashian.