Six stories up in the middle of the night there’s an owl in my house. ‘It’s actually a frogmouth,’ Arris says, ‘tawny.’ Sat at the head of the dining table, still as old growth in variegated shades of eucalypt bark. It stares at us with deep amber jewels, calculating our worth from its strange stoic perch. A partner waits from the balcony, on guard for prospects and threats. ‘They mate for life,’ I hear. Arris takes my hand and we breathe in the night together. I want this to be good luck, I tell her, reading signs of life.
I went to an art gallery today. I rode under two bridges on a graffiti camouflaged ferry to get there. I saw an island of monuments, built for art and half sunk in the ground. Concrete slabs and improbable grasses jutting into modernist glasses. Floor to ceiling oils draped on cavern walls where soft curatorial faces in corners peer eagerly between branded tee shirts and headsets. Nude photography and raw sculpture; ropes that represented shackles and a noose that was; girded metals and unfettered expression. I was told I’d see art today in situ, but I didn’t see you.
Arris puts her device down and looks at me. ‘Do you miss how we were in the beginning?’ I pause my game and hold her hand. We always will be what we were, I tell her. She shapes a doubtful sound in the back of her throat. ‘But don’t you miss the excitement? That new frisson feeling?’ I catch her eye and ask, Do you think the butterfly misses the caterpillar? Maybe the energy is different, but it was poured into forces necessary for flight. The excitement has changed, I say, but every day with you makes me soar.
I look beyond the balcony to the storm clouds floating harmlessly over the horizon and think about cutting myself. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Sarah says, ‘we choose our leaders and we should pay them accordingly — in money and respect.’ The group moves its head discordantly, nods and shakes and partly gaping mouths full with words there’s no room to utter, opinions stuck between their teeth. I think, someone says, but Sarah shushes sharply so the statement sits stillborn on the floor. ‘You don’t know, though,’ she says, ‘because you don’t listen.’ I look to the storm, longing for a change.
Cynicism and Hope were entwined. They’d just made love. Cynicism lay a hand upon Hope’s breastplate, feeling the delicate web of nerve and bone that cage a heart. Each placid thump sent a wave of terrifying euphoria up Cynicism’s arm, pumping not blood but life through strange osmotic channels. I don’t want to hurt you, Cynicism said. Hope lay a hand to Cynicism’s cheek, grounding a circuit that fed warmth and light to each of them. ‘You could never hurt me,’ Hope said, ‘even with pain.’ They saw each other as though seeing themselves and said, ‘I need you.’
At some point in the night she finds a frown and pulls it over her face. It doesn’t sit right in sleep. Lain like that, with her arms above her head and her breasts exposed in Venus pose, the scowl seems a Janus dream. There are lies the mind won’t tell the body, they simmer in subconscious and tic away. Her expression is a pocket of this fight, gloriously honest and more marvellous for its telling presence than the supine splendour of her body and its beauty rendered limp. How I long to kiss her there, beyond the veil.
I press on the bruise, trying to make hurt again. I do it all the time, worry at old wounds in an effort to evocate their peaks. Nothing’s ever the same though, not even pain. I feel like an artist rendering ruins in digital 3D, disastrously flat extrapolations despite the ability. I could fill a gallery with these abstractions, obtruded into seperate wings with woeful didactics strung as diegeses for each — heartbreak half-formed; scars smoothed over time; anguish in relief; negative space — all would be incompetent. The pains of expression are so acute I’m desperate to sketch them.
She catches my smile upon her face and lets it melt without movement. ‘You make me sad,’ she says. ‘Not for you but because of you.’ She takes me into her eyes and blinks slowly. ‘Your misery is contagious,’ she says, shuttered. ‘It’s an infection.’ We breathe in turns and the air grows thick and warm. ‘It will kill love,’ she says. ‘It will spread its tendrils into my affection and strangle it dead.’ I will find a cure, I tell her, I can be well. ‘I know that’s true,’ she says, ‘but I’m not sure that you do.’
Smiling like someone successfully baking cakes, Dr. Bronte says, ‘You should be relieved, it’s so rare to see such clear diagnoses.’ Neither psychosis nor neuroses, it doesn’t feel clear. Borderline, split like a blackjack bet — two suits, same value, no clear winner. Where does that leave me? ‘We can treat it, of course. Though, I worry they won’t take you since you aren’t hurting yourself.’ I think she means physically. I finger my scars. Should I restart? Would that help me get help? ‘Don’t act rashly now.’ But that’s my problem, impulse control and the point where logic lies.
I put the cask on the counter and the clerk says nothing. I’m making punch, my anxiety says, sangria. The clerk doesn’t care, simply pronounces the price while I collate the cost. I offer thanks and get paid with a nod that haunts me out the door, down the street, and into my first glass. I can hear the ice cracking against the suburban stillness. My thirst never makes a sound. By my last I’m no longer dry and ready to drown. I nod at the walls. It’s a punch, I tell them, but you can’t see the bruise.
The cold realities have started seeping in and scare me more than the nightmares ever did. I see her now, looking sometimes at the mask hung in the closet and wondering if she didn’t like me better that way. ‘Do you have to be sad?’ Syllables soft and sharp. ‘Can’t you just… can’t you be happy?’ I tell her it’s not about joy or despair but honesty measured empirically, I won’t hide anymore. We go to sleep with the monster under the bed half discussed and wake in fragmentation. I tell her I’m trying and she nods, ‘I know.’
I’m not cold until she goes, then my heart slows, the blood I’d grown used to gushing pumps a flaccid pace. I leave the lights out and wrap the dark around my skin in honorific absence, telling the night that light has left with her. Outside, the clouds muster, obscuring the stars and severing our celestial connection. Muddied by the river’s black eddy, the city’s busy sheen gloats with life. The wind whips past me on its way to the horizon and leaves me frigid in its passing. I’m not cold until she goes, then I burn with longing.
I woke up moaning in despair, separated from you by inches, infinite neurons, and the wilds of sleep. I’d dreamt I was a cuckoo’s cuckold. Another shape moved in my place to drink my fill of you. I begged, pleaded, and performed the menial while your love for me evaporated. ‘Don’t do this,’ you said, regret and contempt so vivid and visceral it tore the dreams from my head. Brutally aware of mixed realities, I lay in the dark listening to the night birds sing the world awake, weeping for myself and a life that is and never was.