Squat in the street with a sign that reads, Bet U $2 U Keep Walking, the kid looks Hollywood homeless, definitely lean but too clean for the gutter, sullen eyed with a certain kind of cunning leering out from under the lip of his beanie. He must be freezing, only wearing a threadbare sweater and denim jean scratchings that seem more like stitch testing for a seamstress. I like your sign, I say, it’s really legible. The kid tucks his knees beneath his chin, folding up on himself and watching me not going anywhere. ‘Double or nothing,’ he says.
She’s got one of those out of date names like Claudette or Glenda but I miss it for the lipstick on her teeth. Staring herself, she asks if something’s wrong in the style of spun yarn. I lay a finger to the bruise on my cheek and say I might not be coping. She smiles, sharing that porcelain stain again, and tells me she might have some literature about the possibility of help. I think about practicing origami in school when they still thought an education might help. I tell her I’m grateful and leave her to her teeth.
I can sense a rime of salt caked into the upper rim of my ears. After tears. I shouldn’t cry on my back but I like the way it feels, a milder misery than the wracking hunch or mirror stare manoeuvre. The tears run of course, down my cheeks and into the auricles, crusting, sometimes for days, as though the sandman had missed his mark, wept and moved on. I do feel tired though, which is different from sleepy and accrues an internal kind of crust. I cup my hands around my ears and listen to the ocean die.
I tell her I feel like the inferior pillow. Casual, she says, ‘What now?’ You know, the other pillow on the bed that get’s used for everything but cradling your head. The fucking shit pillow, taint and pit mashed into shapes to fit. That’s how I feel in all this, like you’ve decided I’m the one who should mould my skin to suit and should never want appreciation for it. ‘Come here,’ she says, pulling me to her chest. As she strokes my hair I can feel myself soften, supple in supplication. ‘Calm down, isn’t that a bit melodramatic?’
I don’t want the confrontation but she needs it, so I go out there and put the kettle on. She doesn’t say anything at first, just overpacks her bag and triple checks the unnecessary. Looking beyond her reflection in the buffet mirror, she asks, ‘What are your plans for the day. Busy?’ Two sugars, one of coffee, seven eighths water, top with milk. Things taste so sour. Through the steam I tell her, I’ll probably play it by ear. One last lick of eyeliner goes on and a small tut comes out. ‘I won’t be home later,’ she says.
I think back on the invisible deaths of Shakespeare’s two great ignored outsiders while Graham flips his coin over our heads, catching it palm cupped down upon his forearm. ‘The result is not important,’ he says, ‘whichever side is facing was deemed so.’ His eyes are surprisingly dull behind the spectacle’s glint. ‘What matters is how its face came upon us. Why would it be so and what does that mean?’ I feel like we’ve been here before. I ask if it’s fate. Graham tells me I’m still not seeing it and continues expounding on the nature of change.
I break the silence when I tell Sarah I consider myself an enpeecee. She doesn’t play many games, so she says, ‘What the fuck is that?’ A non-player character, I tell her, some badly drawn sprite quietly polishing shields and waiting for the hero to purchase wares or whatever. ‘Well you’re definitely no hero,’ she says, ‘but you’re no catalyst or passive assist either.’ A quest giver at best and scene colour at worst. ‘You could probably just be backdrop if you stopped trying so hard.’ All I need is lack of purpose and obfuscated off-screen thoughts.
You know how when someone you love, someone you’ve shared everything with and you trust and respect and have complete faith in but also enjoy that passive acceptance bred out of total familiarity, when someone like that says I love you and you say I love you back in a totally rote fashion, not disingenuous but so automated through fidelity that it becomes an ignorable key structure in your day to day? You know that feeling? That voice tells me I deserve to die and I always say, of course I do, in a totally rote fashion, of course.
I want to talk with you about you but that’s not how this works is it. Fuck, I wish we were objective. I get, I hate talking too but then you scratch up questions like prying scabs. I put down the marks, I’ll pry the scabs. Can’t you let me not hurt you? Bad enough I break myself without you snapping off pieces of yourself to stab me with. I wish I loved me how you wanted so I could love you how I’d like. I want to talk to you about it but you make it about me.
The beach has always been cold to me, no matter how I’ve loved it, but I go there often and take my loves with me. Like Caleb, confidant and strong with beautiful form and numbing passion. ‘You can’t help me,’ he said, stripping to skin, ‘even if I’m struggling,’ and walked into the waves without hesitation. I’ve always respected the tide and its wishes, the soft inevitability and reassuring repetition of predictable chaos. So I sat above the water line with the prickled edges of pre-glass sticking to my flesh, thinking of love and watching while Caleb drowned.
We take no direction. Driving deep into the bush where the sunlight chokes on yarra pine and canopy sprawl defines the sky. Little lights do break inside the cabin, though, and mingle with the motes; seed, grass, ash-fire, water, grease, precipitation, machines in nature. We wind the windows down and force the forest air to flow. I can feel her smiling on my skin, the warmth and promise. We hold hands between stick shifts and watch the road ahead, summer-crisp anticipation fuelling our desires. We take no direction and feel free to be lost with each other.
Suicide sticks his finger in my beer, swirls it around, then pops it in his mouth down to the last knuckle. I motion to the tender for another and we transact without incident. ‘I fucking hate you,’ Suicide says, ‘even the worst of them are better than you by an immeasurable margin.’ I just want to drink in silence, sit in silence, live in silence. Suicide looks at the decor and snickers. ‘Drab isn’t it?’ I don’t say anything, he knows what I’m thinking. ‘Maybe on the way home I’ll push you into traffic.’ I wish he was dead.
Because Sarah never knocks she walks in on me and freaks out but I think the worst part was how she looked at those bloody towels, like I was why she couldn’t have nice things. Later, after clean up and calm down, we sit at the table for a long time and say nothing over instant coffee. I scratch at the bandage. She won’t hold my hand. I needed to know how much I could hurt myself before it meant something. ‘And?’ I guess I still don’t know. ‘And me? How much should I hurt before it means something?’
Because she asks me how I feel, I say, I feel incapable of goodness, then she wonders, ‘What does that even mean?’ I tell her, I don’t actually know but I know something is wrong, and we sit there, as we do, inside our own skulls. ‘I think you’re a cunt,’ she says. For a while I contemplate the existence of malice in passivity; can evil become inert, living outside of social conscience like a benign tumour, or would the detachment of purpose render classification equally redundant? That’s probably it, I say, the cunt thing. That sounds about right.
The pressure drops and I have the painful sensation of wind over wet ears. ‘You’re more when you’re around other people,’ she says. More what? ‘I don’t know… just, more you. It’s like you become some hyper realised version. I wish you got like that when you talked to me. Why don’t you?’ Because that’s what they want, I tell her, a fictional model full of charm and eloquence, twisted to sate their tastes. ‘So, what? You don’t want to be better for me?’ I thought you liked me for me, I say, but I’ll change if you like.