In the foyer of the hotel I meet a man. After drinks he is braver and asks what he has wanted to know from the moment he saw me in a wheelchair. Always the story of how. But really the story of after, the story of before, or the story of why goes unsaid, unpicked. It is there in the picture if you know how to look.
A car hits a tree. Fast hits hard. Wood is unforgiving. Aged carbon is as solid as stone. Bone is weak. Honeycomb really. The things I tell him are; that I was not the driver. I don’t want him to think it was my fault. Somehow that makes it better for me. Yes I was wearing a seatbelt. The driver fell asleep. Nothing more sinister than that. We were all tired. She was just doing what the rest of us had already succumbed to. The sleep that comes after surf and sun.
He goes to his room. I go to mine. I suspect he wears a toupee. These are the kind I attract. He walks soundlessly on carpet to the stairs in shoes that have never seen the dirt. I point to the lift. I remember climbing stairs, barely.
The things I don’t tell him.
Through the car windows the sun streams in slats made by trees and branches. Like interlaced fingers across your face. Ribbing the road. There is the hum of tyres. A melody of sleeping notes. The sand is still between my toes and in the dip of my belly button. Salt has dried in my hair, so it is like tendrils of thin stripy seaweed. I suck a strand of it like a baby does a finger.
I wear a second hand dress from an op shop from a country town run by old biddies and not gone through like the second hand shops in the city. It is synthetic and sweaty but beautifully cut. It makes my armpits moist and saltier still. It is cream with black flowers. Who would have thought of black flowers? As they slice it from my body in the hospital it is binned in a disposable bag. It is just a $2 frock but I miss it still.
My boyfriend comes to see me in the hospital. All brown and surfy. His hair stiff with sea. It is a cruelty he can’t imagine. I can smell the salt on him, worse than any perfume. He is more than a boyfriend. We live together. We’ve left other people so as to entwine ourselves more completely than vine and post.
She comes too, the girl who seems beside him a lot these days. She was in our lives before all this happened. Before the tree and the car collided as if they were magnetised to each other.
The Story of Before;
She is blonde, but so am I, so that is not the reason. She is young, but so am I, so that is not the reason. She is bright, but so am I, so that is not the reason. She wants him and so do I, so that is not the reason. She is her, and I am I, so that is the reason.
When I enter the uni social club, where I meet him after lectures, he is there and so is she. Always these days their schedules are the same. And they are doing this or that project together. This assignment is due tomorrow; they will need to work late. I can see their faces are too close together to be talking of study. Is his skin touching hers? They are magnified to me. I analyse every movement she and he makes. This is Anita, he introduces her.
What kind of man is he? Sinewy but stooped. He needs Yoga. I already know the bends, the postures. He copies me but never learns. His body won’t soften, his spine stays curved.
After an argument, heated and passionate, there is no making up. A touch from me is rejected. Don’t. Our bodies, like shop dummies, lie apart in the bed wishing it could cleave itself in two. I lie on my side looking out to the wardrobe, seeing my reflection in the grey-spotted glass. Then I am pushed from the bed by his feet in the middle of my back. Boof. On the floor. Like a child who has rolled out in their sleep. But no one is there to cradle and soothe and place me back under the covers. So on hands and knees I make my way to another room and curl asleep on a chair.
He is so clever with words. Was that the reason? He writes reams and reams. He fills yellow pads with scrawling epic poems. He wants me to read it. To praise him. Always about love, he writes, and God. If I take too long to read it, because I have my own study to do, he is offended. It means more than I am busy too. It means I do not care about him. It means I do not care for the things that are important to him. Of course it means I do not love him.
I must convince him of my love.
But his need for love is fathomless. Like the open cut mine it is deep and ugly and scarred. I fill it time and time again but it is a piddling attempt to pack the gaping hole. It is turning into something else between him and me. He is making me compete with her and I am losing.
She is more capable.
We are living together in a student house. We eat eggplant and beans. We heat the house with a fire. We collect wood from vacant blocks. We can’t afford a trailer of mallee roots. The landlord has many cats that he comes daily to feed. Like bats they appear at dusk when his car pulls up outside. He leaves the diesel motor running and it beckons the strays. From under old car bodies and out from under limestone foundations cats pour like liquid fur. He stands beside the boot, dishing out the entrails and carcasses he has brought. There is the odd hiss and claw as they saunter back to their hideaways with their bounty.
Inside the house we are two people at war over scraps. Scraps of love that are torn at like rags. He wants to go to her. She is a fresh thing, he has yet to tread on and make soiled with sadness.
The Story of After;
Now I am injured he has remorse. But it is also an escape for him. He can be injured too. How dreadful to have a girlfriend so handicapped, such a burden. He must make daily trips into hospital and sit by my bedside. He must drive past the surf. He must leave his trail of sand on the lino for someone to sweep.
Sometimes she is with him and she is sweet and kind. I cannot believe that I like her. I want to be her friend. She starts to come without him. We both wear no makeup. Her skin burns in the sun. Mine tans. But in hospital there is no sun, just harsh buzzing fluorescence. Our skins have the same milkiness. I am fading into the sheets. When I wake up from another surgery her hand holds mine.
She unburdens herself and tells me she was with him, entangled, coiled beneath cotton, as the car hit the tree. She was warm and wrapped in flesh while my bones bent and broke like twigs.
Her confessions are tearful. We both weep. She is crying for her own self and me for mine. Again we are the same. She doesn’t want him anymore. I can have him. I can.
He talks about garden paths and pushing me in my wheelchair through the forest. He can make this and that. He can convert, he can carry up stairs. Beside the hospital bed beneath the cotton of his boxers I give him a hand job.
Back in the house of cats we have ramps and an open bathroom. Men friends with tools have converted the kitchen and bathroom so that a wheelchair can manoeuvre and a hand control is put in the car, and it all sounds so easy to just convert and rearrange, but inside the house the house is different. I see it from the height of a seven year old. There is a clunking to movement, a sound of wheels and squeaky rubber tyres on floorboards. No one says you will miss the sound of bare feet.
I can get into an armchair and remember my legs. I can close my eyes and when the phone rings go to get out of the chair to answer it before my mind registers there is a new way to do this that involves no legs. Getting up without legs. All arms. Hauling around legs that are weighty in their uselessness but as good as amputated.
Burn me and cut me and still they do nothing. I wish them gone for all the good they are. Separated by him, so he can still call what we do love making.
More girls. This time they are different from me. They walk. They can feel their vaginas. I can’t compete. I don’t want to compete. He has made me a non competitor.
It is not enough to love someone with all your might. To squeeze every ounce of love you have into it, so that you are a husk after all the wringing is done.
The Story of Why;
I will go from him. To my own place. I will worship things like monumental rocks that the indigenous people prefer you don’t climb. In their magnificence I will seem small. I will wake up at dawn so I can look out to the sunrise and watch it slowly make its way upward and in its rising feel my own self soar. I know I look sad, but it is not sadness you see in my face. It is the face of someone who knows loss, and knows that in losing there are great gifts.