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 drank 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.
Everybody always asks after Arris. Not a soul seems to go unimpressed in her presence. Even my parents call to ask after her now, saying, so charming—what an absolute pleasure. They all think she’s the best thing about me. It makes me want to want to argue sometimes but they’re probably right, and honestly, what a delight to be on this side of that. Knowing their subject objectifies me is a solipsistic bliss. Still, as much as I love her love, I do find I side with the world, it’s in my devotion to her that I’m happiest.
I wish I could sketch but my hands are mere dullards when put to test. Her visage begs for capture, not in facsimile or rendered pixel, but in seasoned illustration, fine dripping watercolour and thick oils sensually applied. I want to tear charcoal from the earth’s ash and smear it over canvas busts built in her image. Ten thousand hours per honed craft could never account for the sheer art of her existence. I want to dedicate myself to learning expression, pure, masterful, and crafted, focused on the labour of acknowledging that her crystalline beauty is irreplicable and unique.
We’re different ends of a watch spring. Where she coils tighter with actions and purpose, I grow slack to yield tension. I tick away and she tocks towards, holding taut equilibrium in the void. Calculated to equalise flaws, wound precisely together, we are honed to count on each other. It’s a wonderful way to spend time and oddly efficient, flying fast in the way of these things. No matter how much has passed it always feels fuller, flowing with the potential of a bottomless hourglass. We go on this way forever, forging past and future while enjoying our present.
I fell for her first in a darkened driveway, drunk on hard cider and the prospects of life. We chatted briskly in broad stroke motifs with incidental familiarity. For five minutes we’d known each other for years, shared space with an ease that tends only to come after erosion is done with defence. When she left I fell hardest, like watching sunlight pass across prison bars, I felt burgled and bereft. I stood in that darkened drive with the shape of love depressed in my hand and the knowledge that nothing felt so right as her by my side.
We festoon ourselves with curios cut from catalogues and call it chic — shorthand for happiness. Urbane couches in faux country fabrics. Modern apparatus for minimalist meals. Serving sets for absentee guests. Overblown glassware and unhandled mugs. Gewgaws that seesaw on surrealist values — some even with sentiment — where sat amongst these trappings we fete our taste. Haven’t we made something for ourselves, we say, believing an idiosyncratic arrangement of items is unique amongst others. We bury ourselves as pharaohs surrounded by worldly goods and social ills in a kingdom of kitsch and clutter, ourselves becoming as dust on the shelf.
When the nightmares wake me I turn to Arris and place my hand on her chest, falling into the space between breaths. Sleeping still, she lays her hand over mine and mewls softly at the dark, unconscious signals that need no dream reader to untangle. No light and no life show beyond the bounds of our room. We are all that there is. I move closer for my skin to know hers. Chest to toe my body warms with an inner glow. I turn to face sleep again, knowing whatever waits beyond, I will be safe when I return.
‘Tenderly but with a firm sense of ownership,’ she says, when I lay my hands upon her. I play my fingers down her spine and beneath the panty line, there I trade my tenderness, pound for pound per square inch upon her buttocks. ‘My body is yours,’ she says, but it’s my skin on fire, my lips melting upon contact, my senses subsumed, my heart quickening her veins. I place my tongue upon her neck and eat her pulse, soft chewing toffee relished for its texture. You are everything to me, I say, and her body says, I know.
Just in case, she keeps a catalogue of smiles at the corners of her mouth. I break the seal with my lunacy and unleash them regularly. She says, ‘I love you,’ through her laughter and it takes the corrugated cadence of a car on cattle bars. So I fling myself again and again at the furthest reaches of mania, wondering how much joy I can inject in her life. The answer is infinite, the industry of amusement set to pace with the manufacture of happiness. We have become a self-feeding machine, the product of the product of pleasure.
We are so porous now that our moods break the skin without even touching. Are you ok, I say, and she tells me not to say it, which I understand but do anyway, wanting to help. She sees me struggling like this and asks, is there anything I can do? I tell her not to worry and worry myself with her concerns. Of course, the happiness filters through too, the joy and love and revelries. This feels amazing, she says, and I don’t respond, she knows full well what happens when we’re near. We fill each other so completely.
Stuart lifts the metre lid and reveals a writhing pile of pupae. I watch them swarm and undulate while he takes the measure. ‘They don’t bite,’ or sting? ‘Natives are nice,’ he tells me. I wonder what it’s like to be a hive mind, would you even know you were dissatisfied unless the overbrain told you so? ‘The workers are all women,’ he says, finishing up, ‘and all the men are slaves.’ Stuart slides the lid in place amidst a cloud of buzzing curiosity. ‘I feel sorry for the queen though, all that control without the ability to abdicate.’
Sometimes I put on old ensembles and dance in front of her. Do I look miserable, I ask. ‘No,’ she says, ‘just a bit ridiculous.’ She’s right, of course, and means so well, these items no longer fit me, probably never did, and certainly don’t look as fetching as I ever believed. We go together now and I pick new things to pull over my skin. I hold them up in front of me and ask, do you like the way this makes me look? ‘Honey,’ she says, ‘I think you look best when you don’t cover yourself up.’