Barbara runs into me at the rocks by the north quay ferry. She’s getting off and I’m taking my time. We say, ‘Hey,’ in uncertain cadences like chastened children forced to make nice after a fight. It was never so hard before. She looks at my shoes and the stairs and the rocks and the sky and all the spaces where something might be that isn’t me. There’s no silence in the city. Pointing away, I tell her, I’d better go, but she’s already a few steps above me. Indirectly she says, ‘Nice seeing you,’ and continues her ascension.
Neither of us cries and the air grows thick with precipitation. In times of drought, I tell her, people of the Balkans would pray to Perperuna, a ceremony and god, Pagan in principal. She was the goddess of rain. A little smile breaks, as sunlight does, and penetrates the cloud. ‘Does this mean you would dance for me?’ For you, yes, but not for rain, I say. Naša dodo Boga moli, my aim would be to stave the storm. ‘Then start,’ she tells me, ‘and let us both enjoy the sun.’ We hold hands and move to warmer climes.
I buried my face in your pillow till I’d nearly suffocated with your scent. Parts of the house move on their own without you. I’d not realised how full your stewardship was, how your body kept the creak and decay away. I breathe you in again and talk to the fibres. All they tell are ghost stories and promises, richly woven but lacking comfort. The nightbirds skylark and the panes rattle; midnight sounds abound. I am deaf, I tell them, and dream of losing myself in your memory. In some other elsewhere I know you smile upon the world.
She falls asleep while I talk about my issues and I keep going because I can’t afford therapy. I wish I had more happiness to share, I say, but I can’t remember anything. She growls softly from beyond and I stroke her hair. Everything nice includes you now and the other things are someone else’s life, like episodes from an out of syndication show. I can’t hold on to the past anymore. I know it’s time to stop when she shifts and nuzzles into me, so I put out the light and try to meet her there in dreams.
I don’t know if it’s universal but her love for me feels unique. Certainly my situation is idiosyncratic. You see, historically I’ve always paid for love — one way or another, up front or in arrears, I always get given the cheque. Love meant pain, time and again, but, like air, I needed it to live. Though I didn’t live well. Breathing in a smoggy hell made from human machination, I never knew what purity was or that it only cost more love. Now I am spoilt, Midas in perpetuity surrounded by wealth I have to learn that I deserve.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.