Celia talked with pinched nasal certainty from behind her back teeth, the sound of concrete bees trying to make honey. There was always a distinctly petty greed underneath her boho-pharaoh eyeliner, a slakeless stare that manifested in morose mannerisms. She was always trying to dig things out of people. ‘Tell me about your dreams,’ she’d say. ‘How did you grow up?’ Not where but how. ‘I bet that hurt.’ A twisted harrow’s smile. Always digging. Sentimental treasures to be unearthed and polished into parsimonious jewels then wagered against the owners esteem. People were terrified not to love her.
Voices on the fringes of frustrated rage, accusations and concessions until we reach the calm inside an argument, not quite impasse but exhaustion. We haven’t shared eyes in some time and the absent contact crests about us as both shield and threat. Are you going to leave me? I say. She takes my hand and flattens it between each of hers. Twenty-four carats settle in the curve between knuckles, calculated frisson in an occupied hollow. ‘I could never do that,’ she tells me, sighing with the piquant firmness of an avalanche, ‘it’s going to have to be you.’
Sarah never shat with the door shut. The whole time we dated it was a debate. Well, I say debate, but it was just another grain in the shifting sands of unease and argument. ‘I get claustrophobic,’ she’d say from her seat. ‘What if there’s a fire and I still need to wipe? An open door saves time and lives.’ She had some kind of condition, multiple unlabelled and laboured conditions, really. In some ways I admired her neurosis, I always prioritise insecurity over my insanity. It must be hellishly freeing to let yourself be governed by those voices.
I go there because she always lets me cry afterwards, passively lets, and her detachment is a beautiful thing. She sleeps more often than not, reads if she’s still wound up, but never asks me why. Not once, not even after that first time. She doesn’t ask me to leave either, or stop. It seems cruel and isolating, it’s not, she isn’t shaped that way, her lack of action is acceptance. I don’t love her, but I love her for that. In the dark, after I’m done, we hold hands beneath the covers and dream separately, lying isolated together.
‘That was fast,’ she says. I tell her I’m sorry, but she just laughs. ‘I meant me.’ I hadn’t noticed, or I had but I’d been so concerned about being good that I didn’t realise I’d done so well. I just want you to be happy, I tell her. She twists around and kisses my forehead. ‘I’m totally content.’ I really want to believe her and stop hating myself. When we’re together, I very nearly feel like a good person. We can go again if you like? ‘I’d love to,’ she says, ‘but my boyfriend will be home soon.’
Thick in a handsome way, Greg from customs makes forceful eye contact and doesn’t smile. His voice is a well trod boot. ‘Anything to declare?’ He says. I had a great time, I tell him. I’m not sure how I’m going to go back. ‘I can have you detained,’ he tells me. ‘Searched and otherwise inconvenienced, right?’ Worn leather pressed liberally. Sorry, I say, you don’t get much chance to be funny when nobody speaks your language. Greg chews the skin of his inner cheek and arrives at a grimace. ‘Seems to me you didn’t miss much being away.’
I like watching the old men smoke on the Shinkansen, there’s a certain furtive elegance to it. Not quite nonchalance but something akin to devil may care. ‘Nationality doesn’t matter,’ Tanaeda-San says, ‘culture is only the tiniest artefact, it’s a trait that grows over time or is embedded in youth.’ I’m not so sure, I tell him, our elderly carry themselves differently, almost fearfully at times, their retirement seems almost a gamble. ‘So so so so so,’ he says, and turns to watch his country sliding by the cabin window. ‘Then perhaps they need to consider not stopping.’
Kaori looks at me with abject innocence and something wistful I can’t pin down. I wish I knew how to talk to you, I tell her. I wish I could share something of myself with you and you with me. ‘Wakarimasen,’ she says, but I don’t understand. We listen to the cicadas chirrup for a while and I can’t help laughing at their joke. She smiles and pats my hand, a gestural lament that carries something I still can’t grasp. I want to speak, but Kaori presses a finger to my lips and opens her palm beneath the horizon.
It’s a strange expanse of introspection, but I get bummed sometimes that I haven’t killed myself yet, like it’s just another unrealised dream. Problem is, I was born with the ambition of a much more talented person, somewhere out there is a should be physicist blissfully calculating tax returns and enjoying my ignorance. I feel indentured to an amorphous personal dissatisfaction, a sense that whatever I accomplish will never be as good as I know it could be were I not me. Not that I want to be someone else, just that I’m not the me I never am.
The gap is insurmountable. I don’t even speak, knowing the space is too thick and vast to carry meaning, all she might hear is some mewling that won’t even carry the conscious fidelity of echo. I lay a hand sometimes, in opportune occasions, upon bared skin betrayed by movement, always so soft and impenetrable. I’m allowed to feel then and the joy of it is dark enough to lose myself inside. I would cry out, to be chastised for my childishness, but it would only bother and I love her too much to dare disturb the wall she’s built.
Lilly came barreling up and threw herself on my lap. I had to start tickling her, it’s in the mandate, so I got right in under her armpits and made her squeal. It’s a gorgeously ugly sound, giggles and gasps mixed with abridged shrieks, the most pure thing I’ve ever experience. I recorded it on my phone once, so I could keep her close. It used to be that I would listen to it whenever I was down, but I don’t have to anymore, it’s enough knowing that she’s in there, her innocence digitised and protected from the future.
I wish my skin were hers. I pry beneath her wrist, slipping my nails into subdermal territory. She doesn’t flinch. I think I’m not there so I squirm. The pain she notices, an irritation. ‘What are you doing,’ she says. Love, I say, love, over and over until the words are in her veins. Love, love, love, love. ‘Stop,’ she says, ‘you’re full of shit.’ And I let her say it because of smiles, but she doesn’t realise how much I give away and what flows in to fill the void. Love, I say, and listen for a pulse.
‘Nah, man,’ Jessie says, ‘it’s not like that. She still loves you, of course she does, she just wants you to love you too.’ He rubs at his nose idly and watches the other patrons mill. ‘It’s gotta be hard for her,’ he says, ‘I mean you’re pretty fucking annoying.’ Anyone else might have gotten under my skin, but I know what he means and how he means it. I’m told loving me is like living with an unscratchable itch. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ he tells me, ‘I’ll always love you, just ease up on the torment and so will she.’
I’m terrified I’ll never be anything, I tell him, that I’m not capable or special or anything and I’ll destroy my life pining after somebody I’ll never be. Damien puts his hand up, a palm out pause, and starts rummaging through his desk, overturning papers, shuffling drawers, and rifling with a bandit’s abandon. I let it last long enough to appreciate the theatrics before asking for the punchline. ‘I’m looking for fucks,’ he says, ‘I swear I had some for you but it looks like I’m fresh out.’ His words sound sincere but I listen to his eyes instead.
I’m on my knees at the foot of the bed staring at a point above Shelly’s head where the window moulding’s loose. ‘I don’t understand why you’re so fucked up,’ she says. ‘You’re too smart to be so fucked.’ Her voice sounds like pressed flowers. I tell her, being able to describe a hole doesn’t mean you can climb out of it. ‘But why’d you have to tell me,’ she says, ‘we were doing great.’ Inside the crack is a darkness that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the room, I crawl towards it until there’s nothing of me left.