|Sheherazade For Natasha
One minute Jessie watches a drama unfold on the tiny TV in the corner of her dorm room, and the next thing, Natasha’s holding a knife to her throat. Well - not exactly to her throat – but she’s holding one pointed at her throat, and only a few inches away.
Should Jessie have seen it coming?
It started with Jessie watching Gladiators on TV, and feeling pissed every time she saw Blueblade because the other day, as she walked down Prospect Street, a group of kids playing on the sidewalk started up a chant of "look its The Blueblade!"
Other than her unusual hairstyle, Jessie knows she has absolutely zilch in common with the muscle bound Amazon, not to mention that Blueblade had about the same chance of winning a beauty contest as rare steak at a vegan food fair. As for size comparison, Jessie’s sister nicknamed her Midge when she stopped growing at 4 ft 8 inches.
Then there’s a knock on the door and in waltzes Natasha. To say that Jessie’s not in the mood for Natasha’s erratic behavior at that moment would be an understatement.
Jessie looks at her and asks, "How’s it going?"
"Fine" Natasha replies as she perches on the single chair by the desk at the foot of the bed and begins to fidget, her left hand twisting and releasing the long braids hanging down to her shoulders. Twist, release, twist, release. Jessie turns her attention back to the television.
As she re-absorbs into the sporting antics of Blueblade and her cohorts, she forgets someone else is in the room with her. Perhaps she had unconsciously willed Natasha to go away, or maybe the fact that her back was turned to Natasha eventually set off a siren in her brain. Jessie would never know.
What she does know is that she’d heard the door shut and looked behind her to see Natasha gone. Sighing with relief, Jessie reflected on the perversity of life that made such a complicated girl insist on being friends with her. The fact they lived on the same floor of the dorm and shared a common kitchen just made her even more inescapable.
As Jessie watched a television commercial, she tried to dampen her guilt at feeling glad Natasha was gone. It wasn’t as if Natasha had ever done anything bitchy to her personally, but that hint of a turbulence barely restrained, evident in Natasha’s habit of impatiently flicking her braids away from her face with a sharp movement whenever she was contradicted and then stepping up close to the source of her annoyance to assert her point, had always made Jessie draw back, feeling as though she needed to secure herself from impending invasion.
And as much as Jessie tried to close her ears to rumors, she recalled just a couple of days ago, Felicia had told her a story currently circulating, which centered on Natasha’s attempt to get some honors student in her class to sleep with her in exchange for doing an assignment that she was feeling too lazy to do herself. Being Natasha, she had conveniently ‘forgotten’ the guy in question was an evangelical Christian; and not only had he refused, he’d told everyone that Natasha had blocked his way as he tried to escape her room and begun removing and throwing--as he delicately put it--her "intimate garments" at him. Jessie decided not to believe that story figuring that surely not even Natasha would go that far.
Just then on TV, Red Panther did some crazy backwards somersault off a wire onto a trampoline and Jessie stopped worrying about Natasha.
Some time later though, Jessie hears the soft click of the door being shut, and Natasha is back in the room again. She didn’t even knock this time, and Jessie doesn’t need to turn around to know it's her. The heavy musky perfume she wears--the one she says was "specially created for her" in Paris--always announces her whereabouts. It is like a bell on a cat. Jessie expects Natasha to say something, but she doesn’t, so she turns around and Natasha is just standing in the middle of the room, staring hard at her. The daylight is gone, and the only brightness in the room is from the TV and the street lamp outside, and Jessie cannot really see much from where she is sitting.
"Look Natasha are you staying or going?" Jessie asks "I am trying to watch this show and you keep distracting me"
Even as she talks, Jessie begins to feel really uncomfortable with Natasha’s presence. She can feel the hairs creeping up at the back of her neck because of the way Natasha is standing stock still. Jessie switches on the lamp beside her and nearly jumps out of her own skin. Natasha’s hands are behind her back and she’s looking Jessie straight in the eye exactly like the mean-tempered Billy goat that Jessie’s brother used to keep as a pet. Whenever it caught sight of any strangers, it got that look before launching itself horn-first at them.
Only then does it occur to Jessie that the click she’d heard earlier was the lock being turned. But why would anyone want to lock someone in their own room? For a second she reflects on how her quiet evening has now been ruined, and regrets not joining her classmates for the usual Friday night drink at the Rat and Lion. Even Felicia’s earlier invitation to come over to her room to catch up on assignments now seems really attractive.
"Are you ok Natasha?" Jessie asks.
"Of course!. Why wouldn’t I be OK?" Natasha replies, sticking out her chin in that way that tells Jessie that she’s about to argue some trivial point.
Jessie shrugs in reply, watching as Natasha turns sideways to stare at the corkboard Jessie has on the wall, to which she has tacked all sorts of things: a class schedule, a card from Andy (her long-distance boyfriend), and a photo of Felicia and her, taken late one night in a photo booth after an evening at the bar shooting one "Chocolate Monk" too many.
Natasha’s gaze fixes on that photo. Then she looks up and glares at Jessie. "Why do you have a photo of you and Felicia and not of you and me?"
"Why indeed" Jessie echoes, feeling all at once tired of whatever game Natasha is playing. "Look Natasha, I am not in the mood for your questions. If you have nothing else to do, then just sit down and watch TV with me or leave!"
"NOT IN THE MOOD?" Natasha shrieks, advancing towards Jessie as her hand flashes out from behind her back. "When is anyone ever in the mood for Natasha? Huh? Tell me!"
Then Jessie sees it, clutched in Natasha’s hand and pointed straight at her chest as she sits on her bed: a long and cruel-looking carving knife. "Natasha, please put that knife down before…" she begins, so stunned she can barely hear her own voice.
"SHUT UP! SHUT UP and answer my question!" Natasha screams. "You’d better not speak unless I ask you to. Why am I not good enough for my photo to be on your wall?"
The knife is now mere inches from Jessie’s neck and she tries to think through the haze of fear blanketing her mind. "Natasha", she says, trying for the soft tone of voice that usually worked for the neighbor’s kid that she used to baby-sit, "You did not give me your photo. If you had, I‘d have put it up on the board too."
"LIES!" Natasha yells. "You always lie to me. You think I don’t notice when you and Maddy and all the others plan to go clubbing and try to hide from me so that I won’t come with you, or when you all go shopping and leave me out of it. That last time we went to Queens Way mall, you all disappeared on me and I had to go home alone. Why do you hate me so much?
"I don’t hate you Natasha." Jessie whispers, understanding now that Natasha is seeing those incidents from her own particularly twisted point of view.
Jessie doesn’t mention the way Natasha always gets cross-eyed drunk and starts a fight by hitting on someone else’s boyfriend when they go out clubbing, turning their pleasurable outing into a guessing game of wondering what crazy situation they’ll be dragged into next and which outraged person they’ll be pacifying. The recent mall incident had involved Natasha trying to get some bored and increasingly irritated sales assistant to give her a discount on an exorbitantly expensive designer bag that she’d set her heart on. Natasha had haggled with innuendo-laden words and batted her eyelashes at the guy who definitely was not interested and was obviously--at least to everyone but Natasha--gay.
Any male who resists Natasha’s "charms" becomes an instant challenge to be overcome. On that day at the mall, she, Felicia and Maddy had tried subtly and then openly to dissuade Natasha from what was fast becoming an embarrassing spectator sideshow, and when she'd refused to budge, they had left.
"Of course I have done nothing to make you hate me," Natasha declares, confirming her skewed version of events. "You are all jealous of my beauty. You all hate me because I am better looking than you! … Admit it!"
"As for that Felicia, she thinks because she has a rich fiancée, she is something out of this world! I know she does not want me to meet him because she is afraid of losing him to me. Yes, and you can quit looking so surprised. You all think you are hiding things from Natasha, but I know about all the evil things you plan and say behind my back."
That Natasha is good looking is true enough. Her long legs and lithe form give her the appearance of a young, strong willow tree and she always wears her long hair in twisted braids, the brown interlocking strands of which, depending on how the sun catches them, are either tinged a soft gold or glinting with the fiery red acquired from a Scottish father, a man who--after thirteen years of more or less ignoring Natasha whenever she was shunted off to him in Edinburgh by her African-American mother--died leaving Natasha’s mother with enough fortune to indulge her every whim. One of those whims, apparently, included sending her daughter to the best boarding schools she could find.
Jessie ponders on how much of that has led to Natasha’s current predicament? Is her erratic behavior linked with having been dragged back and forth until, like a needle in a broken compass unable to find true North, she whirls around endlessly seeking attention? Or is it something else entirely?
It doesn’t matter, for now Jessie feels the sharp edge of pure galvanized steel whispering close to the main artery in her neck while listening to Natasha rant and rave. Jessie’s determination to get out of the situation alive suddenly clears her befuddled brain. She begins to mentally gauge the distance between her third floor window and the ground below in case she has to jump.
Next, as Jessie looks for the slightest opportunity to run for it, one tear rolls down Natasha’s face, and then another. She is soon sobbing, her heaving breath causing the knife to scrape lightly against the side of Jessie’s neck.
Jessie dares not move.
"You know my mother hates me too, don’t you?"
‘I’m sorry about--"
"She has always been jealous of my looks. She’s such a fucking bitch. All her boyfriends can’t keep their eyes off me, and that gets her so mad. You know, she sent me here to get rid of me."
"Why does everyone hate me so much? What have I done other than look good? It is not my fault. Every time I meet a guy I can tell that all he is thinking about is how to get me naked, whether I want to or not. All of them, including your boyfriend ... He tried it with me once. But I said no, Jessie. I mean, you are my friend after all, aren’t you?"
"Yes" Jessie chokes, panic flooding her as Natasha’s crazed eyes gleam at her like polished amber within the panda effect created by her running mascara.
The accusation against Andy, who can not stand Natasha at all, brings home to Jessie the level of the other girl’s delusions, and she suddenly misses him. She pictures him laughing himself into hiccups at the very idea that he would go anywhere near Natasha without donning full combat gear.
This thought makes her feel just a little better. At the same time though, something about Natasha’s last statement rankles in her mind. What does her mother’s boyfriends have to do with anything? What exactly had happened to Natasha that she did not talk about? Is there anything there that she can use to get out of this? Any appeal she can make to Natasha? The questions circle in her mind, and she desperately needs answers.
"Everyone is going to pay for this. I can’t sleep well at night, knowing that all those people are out to get me, especially Stan. You know Stan?" Natasha demands, waving the knife right in front of Jessie’s eyes.
She nods carefully. Stan is the student who lives in the room on the ground floor directly below Natasha’s room. He is a six-foot-something broad-shouldered Goth whose black, silver-buckled jackboots, and ankle-length black-leather overcoat, make him stand out on campus. As far as Jessie knows, underneath that get up (the whole leather and make-up thing), Stan is very laid back and easy-going, and has never exchanged a word with Natasha, despite her provocative habit of jumping up and down on the floor of her room in her street shoes just to rile him up. Jessie had caught Natasha in the act a couple of times and just chalked it up to Natasha’s general weirdness. She had never thought it held any significance.
"Stan is the Devil", Natasha continues, "He is Satan himself. He just changed his name a little, but I recognize him ... I’ve seen into his devilish mind, and I know that he plans to rape me with those black boots, but he will not get away with it. I can protect myself from him ... He won’t win because I am more powerful than him. I am a goddess and I will survive ... Say AMEN!"
"Amen," Jessie stutters.
After that outburst, Natasha goes silent and still. She seems worn out with all her ranting and crying, and the crazy look in her eyes has begun to fade. She stands there, head bowed, as if in deep thought, and her left hand the only thing about her that moves as she twirls one braid around her finger, releases it and does it again. Jessie takes a deep breath, invokes a short prayer to whatever deity looks out for students-locked-in-rooms-with-knife-wielding maniacs and begins to talk.
"It is true that you are very beautiful, Natasha." Her eyes snap to meet Jessie’s, and the knife comes closer until Jessie can feel the tip of it just touching her throat. "You are a very beautiful girl and you deserve all the best that this world has to offer. In fact I know of a story that I read somewhere, about a very beautiful girl just like you and what happened to her"
Jessie stops talking. After a long pause, Natasha’s voice catches as she asks "What happened to her?"
"She was like a princess, and she was a beautiful girl, but nobody treated her like a princess. They stayed away from her instead."
"Why"? Natasha asks.
"Because she could not see how beautiful she was on the inside, and because she was afraid of the way other people saw her, and so she acted in strange ways to get their attention. She became so unhappy and frustrated, when even her friends would not pay attention to her, that she decided to go and seek help."
"Did she find help?" Natasha asks, moving slowly to the side, her knife hand falling away to lie on the bed between her and Jessie as she collapses to sit like a rag doll beside Jessie on the bed. It is as if someone had cut her strings and let all the air out, and Jessie’s heart misses beats as she struggles to pretend not to notice the other girl’s sudden passivity.
For all she knew, it could be a deception.
Natasha’s hand rests on the bed between them, still holding the knife. She sits between Jessie and the door, and running is not an option at this point. Natasha is a big girl and can easily overpower her.
"Did she?" Natasha asks again
Jessie’s brain scrambles to continue the story while simultaneously planning her escape, and she draws out her reply, stalling for time with a story that she makes up as she goes along.
"She did, but first she had to go to a new place where there were people who saw clearly how beautiful she was, both inside and outside, and those people could teach her how to behave so that her inner beauty drew other people to her, and her outer beauty became a blessing instead of a curse. They also helped her to see that she was worthy of being loved, that she was not bad or crazy, and that all the bad things that happened to her when she was a child were not her fault."
As Jessie spins her tale, desperately hoping that she is getting it right, she discreetly eyes the hand holding the knife on the bed between them. Natasha’s grip has slackened, and she is staring straight ahead as she listens, tears once more pouring down her face, seemingly engrossed in the plight of the misunderstood and unloved princess.
Soon, Jessie thinks.
"The girl agreed to go to that place, and when she got there, she found that it was full of beautiful people, just like her, who only needed help so that other people could treat them the way they wanted to be treated. She found out that she was not alone. The kind people in that place told her they could make everything all right."
Natasha’s hand now rests on the bed beside the knife. It is almost as if she wants Jessie to pick it up, but Jessie isn’t taking any chances.
"They know that the girl is not a bad person, and that she would not hurt anyone, she just wants people to pay attention, to take notice, and to help."
Jessie looks at Natasha, then at the knife on the bed. Natasha looks at the knife also, but makes no move towards it.
"I know that you do not really want to hurt me, Natasha. I am sorry that we have not helped you, and that we have not understood," Jessie says, slowly sliding her hand towards the knife on the bed and picking it up. "And I promise you it will be different from now on. We will be there for you Natasha, but you have to agree to let us help, ok?" Jessie gets up from the bed, with Natasha’s sad eyes dully following her every move.
"So I’ll just get this and put it back in the kitchen where it belongs."
Jessie takes very tiny steps backwards until she is half way between the door and Natasha, who watches and listens, her eyes swollen from crying, indecision warring with malice within their depths.
And then Natasha looks up at Jessie and whispers, "Why am I doing this Jessie? Why can’t I just wake up? I should just kill myself. Jessie, give me back the knife. I promise I won’t hurt you with it."
Jessie, fighting off the chills induced by those words, and even more frightened at the thought of Natasha wrestling with her to get the knife and then stabbing herself with it, runs towards the door, wrenches it open and bolts.
She does not look back as she races headlong down the stairs and stops to pound on Felicia’s door.
Felicia flings the door open, saying "Hey! Where’s the fire?" and stops as she takes in Jessie’s shaking legs and shuddering breath. Her eyes widen when she sees the knife in her friend’s hand. Jessie pushes past her and locks the door, flings the knife on the table and starts talking all at once in a rush, her garbled words twisting into incoherence. "Calm down Jessie, you are not making sense" Felicia says.
"Natasha wanted to kill me and then herself" she gasps.
"Natasha did what? … Jessie, I know that she can be a total pain in the ass sometimes, but she--"
"That’s the knife!" Jessie points at the instrument of her torture now sitting innocuously on Felicia’s desk." She locked me in my room and held the knife to my throat. I have just escaped. I left her in there. What are we going to do? She says she wants to kill herself now!"
"Holy crap! are you ok?"
"Yes I am. But what are we going to do? Should we call the police? I’m so confused, I can’t even think."
"I don’t think we should call the police, Jessie. From the sound of things that last thing Natasha needs is to be taken away and locked up somewhere terrible. I don’t know what is happening with Natasha, but I think she needs help, and the local jail would probably make things worse. She did not actually hurt you did she?"
"No, and maybe she never meant to, maybe she just wanted some attention, but my God, what if her hand had slipped? You know what? she could even be threatening someone else right now or…or getting another knife!"
"Ok calm down, Jessie. Let’s get Maddy and Maria. She can’t overpower all four of us. I’ll have my phone on ready to dial 999 if we need to."
For once, Jessie is grateful for Felicia’s habit of taking charge of things when the need arises, although she’s in no hurry to deal with Natasha again. In fact, at that moment she would be quite content never to set eyes on he for the rest of her life. Some thread of compassion, however, nudges her to agree, so they call Maddy and Maria, give them a brief version of events, and ask them to come over to Felicia’s room straightaway.
All four of them then head to Jessie’s room to find the door still open as she had flung it, and Natasha curled up like some newly germinated bean sprout on Jessie’s bed, her eyes staring unseeingly at the TV and a few strands of her long braids clutched in one hand.
Maria, who is closer to her than any of them (since they knew each other before they came to Leeds Central University), approaches her and calls her name gently. Jessie hangs back as far away as possible near the door, ready to run at the slightest provocation.
Natasha looks up and says, "Hey Maria, come sit down with me."
Maria sits down beside Natasha and says "Natasha, what happened? Are you ok?"
Natasha says "I’m fine. I want to get in some Chinese take out. Is anyone else hungry?" She nonchalantly looks at them all standing in the doorway half in and half out of the room. "We could all order some Chinese food and watch TV and eat in. Eastenders is starting in about half an hour and I don’t want to miss that."
Everyone agrees with her and Natasha smiles at them, already anticipating the promised new beginning; a virgin world of unlimited love and undying friendship
Buki is a Nigerian/French writer currently completing her MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University. She now resides in Somerville, MA, where she shares a home with her husband Julien, and five zebra fish. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.