She doesn’t look at me much while she’s talking but there’s lots of casual touching, bumping her shoulder into mine and that sort of thing. It’s endearing, even if it’s a bit sad and transparent. ‘I don’t have much luck with guys,’ she says in tone of incantation. Her fingers graze upon the back of my hand, indelicate and openly hungry. ‘They’re never as nice as they seem.’ I tell her I’ve seen, ‘wolves dressed as sheep, your men,’ and lambs throwing themselves under the tooth, both prey and predation. ‘Do you want to eat?’ she says, ‘I’m starving.’
Through the distance of space and the closeness of technology we discuss the dissipation of relations that never were. I tell myself I did the right thing, then apologise to her for not making any promises. Thinking of the future and ignoring the past, I tell her, I don’t want anybody to get hurt. She calls me an asshole, it’s true enough so that I pin it to my heart beside my other still-beating disappointments, a sodden general’s medal array. None for valour. I’ll a see you later, she says and then it’s done, because nothing ever happened.
Dinah yanked the last hair free and took it between the thumb and ring finger of her left hand. She set the tweezers down, held the hair in front of her and looked right past it to the truth within the mirror. ‘I always get so red,’ she said. Flicking at the iPad cradled in her yoga posed legs, Juliette didn’t look up but stiffened slightly and pulled in a breath, ‘It’s your skin babe. Porcelain marks easy, but it’ll fade.’ Dinah blew the hair away and wished, wondering if an eyebrow would work as well as an eyelash.
Lately, things are wrong in a way they never used to be. My mouth tastes like ash and my fingers hurt. I’m tired all the time in a way that doesn’t make me want to sleep. Time is my enemy and it works in seditious ways. I don’t relate to my life anymore, it’s always something described to me on other people’s terms. Events get all mixed up like colour swatches in a paint store explosion. I worry that I’m not crazy enough for any of this, but Sasha says we’re all crazy, that we need it to survive.
When she hugs me goodbye I count the seconds between the thunder and the clap, glad I didn’t hold my breath. I don’t know when it started raining. I think it could have always been this way. Drizzle drowning the world in increments, moisture in the bones, deterioration sinking in. Sometimes the promise in the clouds is the worst. Mindfully, I romance drier days, though things were brittle then, they carried the spark of kindling, the threat of fire as purpose brushed against potential in whispered movements begging to be ignited. Dampened now, it looks like rain all week.
Not a ghostly scene, yet something more sinister. Ring of leaves, silent in respect, moved only by the gallish breeze. The smells of expended energy, exploded in tableaux, burnt out anger like the dying phosphors of a done for match. Playing cards strewn across the courtyard, empty slacks abandoned alongside a knapsack, exsanguinated, deflated and mournful. Struggle painted upon the ground and spread out in situ. In the middle sits a tin, memorabilia contained within; a stopped watch; plastic soldier; photograph of him and her, set in bliss before ruin; an earring; ticket stub, faded, railway journey; foreign currency.
Watching Dana and James make out, trying not to look or look like I’m not. The ice has made everything hyperreal and distinctly absent. I have the sensation that I’m hovering inside myself, separated by a buffer of nothing that feels like falling. Air in a vacuum.
I miss her tongue already.
Five minutes ago she has me up against the bathroom sink, her fingers slinking beneath my skirt. Her lips upon my neck, heavy petting, hot and breathy, saying, I have to have you. Panting and pawing, frenetic, messy, passion riddled moments, melding together as she moves against me, thigh parting mine, stirring my insides, jarring me alive. I shudder and lose track of time.
Somebody turns the music up and I feel myself bump against the world. ‘Is it just me or is it crowded in here?’ Nobody listens. I need to move or I’ll die, so I finish my wine. The kitchen seems so far, but it’s fine once I force my feet to work and persuade my head to stay on straight. I’m walking when somebody stops me.
‘Hey, do I know you?’
Slouched against a wall, slumped though comfortably so, Dylan, slur-smiled and easily unaware. Golden trellis hair laid in disheveled crown of thorns, framing drugged eyes that I can’t meet. ‘Not really.’
‘Nah, not so. You’re Sally’s sister, no?’
Two years ago, hiding at a seek party, wanting not to be sought but resenting the thought. Stuck in a closet, drinking to drown, swallowed by darkness. Though I can’t see a thing, I can feel the music through the floor. It moves through me like the vibrations of a muffled drum, insidious and rhythmic, frustrating itself in the stillness of my body.
‘I can’t believe I found you.’
I want anything other than this. Pressure pawing over me. Calloused hands screaming for satiation across my skin, twin freewheeling pinions. I can’t move. My mind collects my senses and projects them behind closed eyes, a vivid and ferocious, transcendental conglomerate of horrors. I wish them gone or me away. Within and without, stripped apart and reassembled against my will. I try not to think, to breathe, to survive. I hope for nothing and lose track of time.
Sitting in the shower basin, drenched and empty, salt running from her skin. Standing there, prune skinned and withered in the steaming air, looking for myself in the mirror’s fog, thinking I can’t cry again. Her words, dampened in the water’s patter, reach me muffled, out of sync, hovering in the heat.
‘Where did you go?’
Dana, standing by me with a hand on my shoulder. Mascara, run since I last saw her, darkening her eyes. Her smile still shines, lightened in relief. Pulled to her, embracing, the pulse in her neck a timpani thump I feel in my heart. I am stretched taut around her.
‘Even when I’m not here, I’m there.’
One day soon she drives us to the beach, rattling there in that old Volvo beater, listening to a scratched copy of Garbage she swears is stuck, an auditory witness to her supposed ignorance as she sings every word. Only she enjoys pretending she isn’t enjoying herself. We throw our towels down on the sand and face up to the sun, our arms outstretched and our fingers just not touching. Sedated by the crushing softness of the waves falling upon the shore with meditative persistence. When she smile it’s genuine and I take it for my own. Nobody will ever see it again.
A little too early, nobody here and nothing to do. I pour myself a wine and wander through the house, finding James in the lounge room living up to its name, draped upon a weathered chaise and staring down the ceiling. He looks so serene, I want to disturb him. ‘Dana isn’t far away,’ he says. Neither of us does anything.
Somebody hands me something and says, ‘you’ll be fine.’ I smoke a pipe and lose track of time.
I walk out on Kirsten’s diatribe and Sarah’s endlessly bobbing head. People make me feel uneasy, my skin begins to reject the host, layers of muck and membrane and philosophy splayed apart and rewrapped about my being, slipping like loose silk upon a maypole, little by enough, tiny contrasts exposing themselves as invisible sores upon my body, itching at me in an impenetrable way. My legs shake, unsure and belligerent, taking their ragged cues from my lungs. My mind, only sluggishly, makes demands of my nerves, sputtering and cowed beneath the stratum, woven throughout the functions of the flesh.
I was looking for a cardigan when I found it, a small wooden chest in the hope style, filigree inlay with beautiful detail, velvet lined and carefully partitioned, not yet full but still thoroughly occupied by more than two dozen vials, each beautifully labeled in private school cursive. Name and date, rank filing of precise chronology, a planting calendar of seed that never bloomed, millions doomed, dead since laid to bed. Laughing pridefully below the surface of her wit, Cynthia calls it the cream of her crop, a sick deciduous harvest, chilling even in the growing warmth of spring.
There’s Caleb staring at a stovetop covered in pots, each full to brimming with water, a stopwatch, pad and pen held in an arrangement of fingers, shuffled amidst them with the delicate alacrity of a seasoned croupier. ‘I’m seeing if its true,’ he says, eyes intent, ‘if they’ll boil.’ Everything still but for the pensive agitation of the water. ‘It’s always yes,’ he says, ‘I can’t tell if it’s me or them or time itself.’ I wonder what will happen if I make him look at me. Have you seen how long it takes without watching? I ask him.
Something changes in the night so that I die a little, more than ever through the day. Irredeemably alone, my thoughts, crept in from dark spots and sat upon our bed. Her head wedged in my pit, my arm locked above us lest it pincer down to nut-crack her sweet face. There’s a divine innocence in her repose, elevating her above herself in sleep. An unseen surrender that truly makes her beautiful. It’s in these moments I want to hurt her. Gigil, the Filipino’s say, or some such variation, unheard though whispered with my hands upon her flesh.
Standing there in Batman’s silhouette, an itch over my skin. Her laughter saws against the night, sharp and disquieting. I slip the cowl off and sit beside her on the bed. The stiff synthetic mask, cold clutched in my hands, is dead now emptied, caved into a rictus grin. Smirking, as if my intentions mock me. ‘I thought you’d like it.’ She softens her laugh and lets it taper so that it slips away soundlessly, leaving mirth and supplely dimpled humours in its place. Expressions play acting emotions with silent cinema grace while searching for a genre of reaction.
Cold and inert, my father’s chassis laid upon his bed. A quirk, he always said, bedding. As only humans could, or would, seeking comfort for the psyche with physical succour. It eases what’s needed, he said, to feel alive. I find the little things to be the most humane. Still, even though I was prepared, I was unsure how to take direction from myself. I replayed my father’s final words, his crystal commands running as clear as summer sky in my mind, crisp and present and equally unreachable. Take my soul, he said. As though it were that simple
I don’t have anything to say
when she looks at me
hollow, I think she says
not much by way of greeting
meeting her halfway, deep
in fleeting moments, chasms wide
my hand feeling what I ask it to
upon a curvature of thigh
heavenly inverse sloping
porcelain trained swell
I think, hell
and don’t speak
as time unfurls
sitting there for all the world
like nothing ever happened
she says, hollow
are you even there?
I lean my hip against the rail and look into the complex, something like two dozen apartments arranged in an irregular square, four squat blocks sharing a Sierra Leone stare around a communal courtyard, all done up in Mediterranean faux deco painted pastel terracotta stucco. Nothing moves but the fourth story wind and the scant ambitious leaves thrilling themselves in its breeze. I hear Dane muttering nothings to nobody inside and turn to watch him shuttling knickknacks between nooks with perfectly suited idiosyncratic randomness, complementing each piece on its place as he goes. Everything looks the same to me.