“Death is not evil,” he begins, “for it frees man from all ills and…”
He trails off, eyes drifting listlessly, almost shyly, from the pages of the book he holds open, cradled like a psalm. The room is quite, disconcertingly so and even a pin drop would go unnoticed in a silence so meticulously maintained. It is as though he hadn’t spoken at all. She is intent on preserving the carefully cultivated pre-tense of peace, despite the way in which she itches to prove she knows the title, the line on the tip of her tongue. Even the sounds of the late evening have been cajoled into compliance; the shadowed street light flickers ember in defiance, not entirely willing to risk the repercussions of even the slightest sound. She cannot bring herself to say she remembers, she remembers it all.
He watches her, as he often finds himself doing these days. He feels this way is better. To observe, from a measured distance, the mysterious inner workings of her private world. She is closed off in concentration, her tedious posture one of inevitable intrigue, and he finds himself studying her in turn as she fills in the attentive boxes of the Sunday crossword.
He feels a sudden wave and carried along he is compelled to break the guarded silence. And so he speaks.
“You cut you hair,” he says, innocently enough. She doesn’t immediately raise her head, though her pen stops in its tracks, a poignant pause. It seems to consider itself, raised oddly in the air, a stop-motion freeze-frame.
“Last week,” she responds in her deliberate way, brushing the folds of the paper and all at once looking up to meet his gaze. “I got it cut last week.”
“Oh. Right.” The words form an ugly sound in his mouth, and so he tries again. “It’s different. You look… nice.”
The compliment wilts lamely and she stares at him, stone-faced. Her lip twitches ever so slightly. Then she mutters something he can’t quite make out. She shakes her head, disappointment in her unwillingness to repeat her words when he asks her to.
If they had a clock, now would be the moment it would strike it’s hands together, winding back some kind of conciliatory reprise. But he had long since denounced all reminders of the passing hours of his meagre life, and she had been too busy to notice the house had been ransacked overnight, removing any trace of the passing of time. Talk of childhoods, of plans and future lives had slowly sunk to the bottom of their unwavering agreement to be sensible.
Back in the room, he is struck by another wave of something. It hits him, this visage of the past. A quivering thing, it demands to be spoken or else forgotten completely. He can’t resist.
“Sometimes I miss your ponytail,” he says, slowly resenting the visible slivers of skin at her neck. She barely smiles, sighs, steadily subverts the words until they sound sweet like the past. She brushes the bare skin of her neck and feels so utterly the satisfaction. Freedom granted just like that. New hair, new me, she thinks bitterly. Isn’t that what they say?
Once she was wild, magnificent to behold. She spilled secrets like coffee and gossiped affectionately about friends she had loathed since school. She took to howling at strangers on the bus and religiously dedicated her Sunday evenings to the weekly crossword. He liked her wicked grin, the smoke and drizzle of the city humming her name as he walked down the grey pavement and counted the hours until her. Traced her initials on his wrist, weighted down in the days before he no longer cared to see the minute hand trek its laborious path, forever chasing the seconds.
But she grew older, sprouted practicalities and planted seeds of resentment like children and marriage and mortgages on houses they couldn’t afford, on streets they used to sneer at.
“Mort-gages!” she would howl, snapping her fingers for emphasis, a dangerous glint in her eye. “C’est amusant, non?”
“What?” he laughed nervously, not wanting to seem stupid, uncultured.
“They’ve got a sick sense of humour, the French. Mort, meaning death, gage for like a pledge of some kind. Literally Death Pledge! Roped in ‘till you kick it! Debt ‘Till Death, my friend! Pretty fucked up, don’t you think?”
“I guess so,” he laughed timidly, unsure exactly what to say. He never knew the right things to say to her in those early days. This shot-sure girl who spoke so freely of language and art and literature. He gazed up at her, blazing persimmon, and wanted so badly to be a part of it.
He felt this way often, in the beginning. Quickly and ceremoniously, he was introduced to her friends, all of whom she had met at university- all exactly the kind of artsy intellectuals that made him stumble through his words and blush like a newborn. It was fascinating to see her with these people, though he could never truly shake the feelings of inferiority, the strike of fear when all eyes turned to him and he was asked to give his opinion on the politics of Nolde, or the literary influences of Dostoyevsky. He floundered, drowning, as he was forced to perform for the group, smashing his symbols gracelessly like a wind-up monkey whilst everyone sat witness, silently disapproving.
He had known this side to her, and loved her even so. Despite her pretentious friends, who insisted on reenacting scenes from plays by Chekov, utterly without warning and had ordinary names like Gavin or Beth, but introduced themselves with epithets like Zaza or Blue. He found it all absurd. But every once in a while, he would say something, and they would stop, and really listen, consider what he had said, smiling in surprise like he was a pet that had just stood up and started to recite poetry. He was still abashed, reluctant to contribute some clever remark. Still boyish and coy, the way he leant back to watch them all get into it. He didn’t know that she was in fact watching him, too. He didn’t know that she was already head over heels.
Like the coldness of dawning, and the inevitable bitter passage, time tends to take more than they ever cared to imagine. The time took its toll. She learnt to tame her wildness, sharpened her future with sensible shoes and settled for reality. He became lethargic and bitter, wallowed in memories of their youth and disgusted himself with fresh rolls of fat, the stink of his failure.
“Don’t you think its time you got a real job?” she says sharply, sick of days spent sleeping until two, littered beer bottles creating the wall of divide. His refusal to grow up on one side, her discarded dreams on the other.
And soon, the place they shared became a burden, a battleground for petty arguments and spiteful words; the space between a no man’s land, muttered flecks of discontent festering beneath the floorboards. Shards of somethings broken, spilt like milk in the dead of night, seeps slowly into their lives. It clings like a dark cloud, staining the air with the glowing ember of bubbling resentments. Neither willing to cross the in transgressible wall of words too true to take back.
His family had been a source of difficulty for them from the start. His mother, neurotic and alone, took to calling him with increasing frequency and agitation. He would know each time the phone let out a static trilling that she would answer, always after an initial ring she could materialise from nowhere to answer that god-damn phone. And she would speak through strained politeness before appearing before him, her look unreadable as she pronounced, “it’s your mother”. Then she would retreat silently, and he would be left to fend for himself.
“Hello? Hello! Can you hear me?” his mother’s voice through the landline made his skin shrivel and had the emasculating effect of reducing him to an infantile teenager.
“Yes, Mum, I can hear you. Remember, I told you, you don’t need to shout, I can hear you just fine.” He tried to keep his tone neutral.
“Oh. Good.” she replied and then preceded to recount her day, exactly as she had done the previous day, and the one before that. His mother inquired about his job, and he lied briskly, unable to confess that he had been let go months ago. And his mother never asked about her, making it a pointed refusal to acknowledge her, as though six years could be ignored and brushed under the carpet, simply by not speaking it aloud.
His sister, Helen, had convinced him long ago that he was fighting a loosing battle. In those early days, he had entered vigorously into screaming matches with his mother, rearing for a chance to voice some latent adolescent fury. Often, she had crawled into bed after being shunted once again by his mother at some family occasion or another, curling up into an indecipherable mass of creased linen and auburn hair. He had relished these moments of weakness. Eager to hold her, kiss her forehead and whisper about denouncing his family entirely. All for her.
She had struggled with these snapshots of vulnerability. Unlike the venom he spat in the name of his family, she knew the words to be empty. She knew that by next week, he would announce they were having dinner with his family, apparently oblivious to her blank expression, her tensing shoulders as she scrubbed frantically at the already shining dishes.
Envy had never been in her nature, but ever since she had left school and her life had abruptly become her own, an envious tinge had begun to shadow her view. She looked around at the world, suddenly skeptical and quick to envy all that she saw. Endowed with a new, fresh sense of purpose, she scoured at strangers, at middle-aged bike riders slicked in neon lycra, at young mothers who pushed clam-shaped prams down tree-lined roads. She hated all of them, but mostly she envied them something of their lives, glimpsed in moments of unawareness. Imagining made the gnawing sense of loss more unbearable. And so she preferred to become detached, observing the people around her like animals in the wild, allowing the growing numbness to cocoon her like a fresh water fish.
She had neither seen nor spoken to a single member of her family for years. He had often asked her about them, in the beginning. His curiosity to know her leading to questions about her childhood, her parents and the big Why.
“You haven’t seen your parents in three years? But why?” he demanded. She had not been able to hide her smile, so endearing was he with his childlike incredulity, his inability to understand the desire to be alone.
She had told him then. It had been two months since their first encounter, and now they spent all their time together, laying entangled on her living room floor or embarrassing his flatmates with their closeness. Of course, it wasn’t until much later that she regretted her transparency, her pathetic eagerness to share every part of herself with him.
“My parents emigrated to New Zealand when I turned fourteen.” she began, “They left me and my brothers with an aunt we had never ever met, and never came back. We would get letters from them, on birthdays and at Christmas, sometimes great sprawling accounts of their house on the coast, pages and pages of their lives unfolding. But then sometimes it was only a postcard. Some generic landscape, nothing concrete that we could take to mean they missed us. They had an impressive ability to vacillate between the kind of parents who showered us with affection, asking about school and our lives, promising they would fly us out to visit, crying about how they missed us over the phone. But mostly they were the kind of parents that seemed to find it all too easy to forget about the existence of their children and return to a life of reckless abandon, no responsibility.”
“What about your brothers? Do you not see them?”
“My brothers and I..” she faltered, not sure how to explain a lifetime. “We were so far apart in age, most of the time it felt like we weren’t siblings at all. They were older than me, convinced that they were so versed in the ways of the world, and that I would never be able to catch up. They both live in America now. One of them has a little girl…”
It was this line of thinking that ignited something dormant inside her, some long forgotten semblance of desire to belong. Hook line and sinker, now she spiralled into the past.
It was a nice road her aunt had lived on, buried deep in the suburbs outside of the city in which she would later apply for university and meet him, and begin her new life, reinvent herself like Venus emerging from the half-shell of a past self. The house was tall and red-bricked and she loved most of all the summertime when she would open all the windows, let in the pollen-tinged air and sit at the very highest window, legs slowly turning red against the sleek slate tiles. Her brothers, it seemed to her, had agreed upon a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell. They assumed form, shifting neatly into distant characters acting out a play no one cared to see. Although forced to occupy the same space, they understood that this did not necessarily translate to deliberate interaction with one another. They felt the distance to such a degree that it became easier that way. Waiting for their parents to decide whether they felt like acknowledging them or not soon got old. And anyway, they favoured the latter.
All three of them floated through the house, acknowledging one another with detached nods and defunct requests to please pass the salad at the dinner table. Their aunt worked strange hours and kept a rigid schedule by leaving fluorescent yellow post-stick notes on all conceivable surfaces, with instructions about food to be re-heated and reminders to feed the cats she seemed to acquire with concerning regularity. They took the consistency of these hastily constructed relics as proof, if not of love, then of care. A sign, as regular as clockwork which soon enough constituted a motherly affection. The square-shaped certainty and cursive flick of their aunt’s hand as comforting as a kind word, a pat on the back for a job well done.
He was a breath of cold air. A wake up like she had never experienced before with boys, and then with men. They liked how she was detached, her inability to stay the night and suffer a morning of inane breakfast talk. They thought she was sexy in her scuffed boots and ill-fitting artist shirts. A lack of interest they interpreted as intrigue, her desire to be alone a code written in foreign tongue they just couldn’t wait to unravel, to reveal the quivering thing beneath. Though, by then, they usually got bored. And she got used to sipping spirits from water bottles and moving her mouth in time to the words that spilled out like gasoline from a stranger’s mouth. These were the times she wished to disappear. But then, like thunder, there he was.
A different city, sharp and new. Six years and people were bold back then. Licked lines from salty crisp packets, sang songs from the radio and made up with friends like lovers. In the middle of the end of the millennium, they were found. And she saw him first, through waves of nicotine clouds she saw his quietness and knew. She chose and he, dazzled by her spark, her electricity and the way she saw into his mind, fizzing with genius, he chose her too. That night, six years never crossed his mind. The thrumming of music in a stranger’s flat dimmed all else to a flicker of a cigarette, a winking question of got a light? and so eager to escape together. They must have walked the earth of the city that night, pausing on vacant concrete to be shy with one another. The thrill of fumbled kisses and his uncertainty she found so unknown. His hair too short, glasses hiding the intensity of the stormy high rise above. The pair of them about to fall into each other completely, the vermillion tinged river watching from below.
Now, it flows peacefully. The river once again witness to their lives, and she stands on the precipice. Things so precariously tilted. He has not yet been fired, and so she watches as he walks across the bridge, back to her and unbeknownst to her gaze. She has not yet told him, hasn’t dredged up the courage to lie it all on the table and say she will leave him. Although she knows his is not the half curled body she wishes to come home to. But she is a coward, and so here she stands.
She had crawled out of bed early that morning and ran to the river. She left him fast asleep, snoring into new worlds never to be known to her. It was 6:10 am and the light was dim as grey suits trudged through the morning towards tower blocks and glass coated office buildings.
Reaching the place she knew so well, she ignored the pain in the root of her throat. He saw her before she saw him and for a second she wanted to rip herself into two. Leave the part of her that no longer longed for life, next to that ever faithful sleeping form to carry on each day just like the one before. Watch as he continued to resent her and sink deeper into his own wallowing. She could hardly bare the thought. And so the other part of her could be here, by the river at dawn, she could unloosen and run to him, her secret. Hers and hers alone.
But she knew that would not happen, and as she saw him, he stood and knew. They sat for a while, touching hands and mouths and everything they wished but couldn’t be. He brushed her hair from her hardened face, curling the shorter strand around his finger. Of course, he had noticed. The small things never escaped his practiced gaze; seam-bream eyes always crinkling at the first chance. She loved his focus, his self-assured reliance and the way he challenged the things she said, the way she had learnt to take life without desire for more.
Endings always make the beginnings seem so much sweeter. And this end felt like giving up on some part of her. The way in which summer slowly returns to the earth, she rings the sea-bream from her hair and watches as he walks away into the new day. Hypnotic, the swirl of soapy water down the shower drain, the summer that yearns to make a home beneath the skin and never quite leave. She lets herself cry, then. Really cry. Wracking sobs that have passersby staring, an older woman tilting her head and asking if she can call anyone.
“No,” she replies, voice hitching in an ugly confirmation of her distressed appearance, a mirror to her broken heart. “There’s no one.”
Today, they lie in a portrait of mourning. She, a reluctant a reluctant presence, living another life of insular dreams that smell like happiness. Gone. She, a sleep-drenched sigh, and up, curtains ripped away to reveal the muffled sounds of the city. Morning relics. Their strangeness with one another exposed by unwelcome sunlight as he, awakens heavy. Heart thumping, breath desperate to catch all that they once had, and he is again reminded by the violent intrusion of another day.
A barely there thing. She pauses, counts the circles her toes make in the carpet, churning his words down into the beige threads of elsewhere. Then something occurs: a memory. It seeps like a leak from some once known place, until the sounds flood everything and the colours shine behind her eyes as she turns and sees.
“‘Death is not evil, for it frees man from all ills and takes away his desires along with desire’s rewards.’”
He speaks and she looks up, amused and determined to hide her surprise. He is surveying her books, browsing the titles like he is strolling through a bookshop, carefully considering each and every copy. The one he has chosen is a thick brown book and he balances it in one hand, the other raised mid-air in mimicry, addressing his attentive audience.
“What a load of bullshit!” he scoffs and she closes her own book. The one she had been pretending to read for the past ten minutes, instead she secretly watched him from the corner of her page. He was backlit by the one working lamp she owned, propped on a useless wooden chair to the right of the book shelf.
“Is that so? You think Leopardi, considered by some to be the greatest writer to have ever existed, is in fact spouting bullshit, as you so elegantly put it.”
He grins like a boy. Sees the challenge in her waiting stance, the cock of her head, expectant.
“Yes. Okay, so not complete bullshit- I like the Death part, I like that he sees it as some kind of release, you know – but, all that stuff about desire and desire’s reward. What does any of that even mean? Like, if Death gives us a kindness by taking away all of the bad things, isn’t he really just taking away all of the good stuff, too?”
She curls her legs up beneath her and shivers all of a sudden. “How do you mean?”
“Well,” He pauses, still holding the book like a sermon. “If life is taken away by Death- and he thinks this will take away all pain, right?-“ she nods, a smile forming behind her eyes. “Okay, so then, what’s the point? If Death were so great, wouldn’t everyone just give up the trouble of living a life of painful desire to be free of it all? And then, where would that leave us?”
“Exactly.” he says excitedly, looking down again at the page, obscuring his face to her by a cruel trick of the light.
“Why did you pick that one?” she asks, nervous in their newfound intimacy, the sheets of her bed still thrown back and blissful in the half-darkness. He peeps at her with one eye.
“You underlined it.” he says simply.
She is surprised, the sound forming from her stomach and painting her mouth a perfect circle.
“Oh, I’d forgotten I’d done that.”
He grins wider, feeling invigorated and utterly confident, having a strange inexplicable sense that they have crossed some invisible line. The test has been passed and now they smile at one another, not shy in their gaze, their touch. They feel this moment has been something to remember.
A smile, then she breaks free and the past crumbles beneath her lash line. The memory fades and the melancholy sprawls into their present, as she sees the life they have been left with.
“It’s morning.” He says again, so softly he surprises himself. A desire to call her name springs to his lips and he is again surprised. An odd stirring of long let go hopes, burgeoning like a bulb. But, too late. Her eyes have glazed over the past and shut it out for good: she has seen enough.
“I’ve got to get to work.”
Is all her response, the words clipped and formal, the thin ice between them breaking open into a chasm. He knows she is lost to him once more. Knows it in the way she hardens herself, shielding from his eyes. Her name dies on his tongue as he watches her from the sudden emptiness of their bed, watches her curve away from the shell of their intertwined ghosts.
So now he stares into a hollow future and longs for the twist of her ponytail. Dreams of days before the fight to feel alive felt like trying not to drown. Two islands, stoic and drifting, unable to resist the swelling tide of discontent as it pushes them further into their lives.