“This was the man who would not submit to her need for probing intimacy, overintimacy, the urge to ask, examine, delve, draw things out, trade secrets, tell everything. It was a need that had the body in it, hands, feet, genitals, scummy odours, clotted dirt, even if it was all talk or sleepy murmur. She wanted to absorb everything, childlike, the dust of stray sensation, whatever she could breathe in from other people’s pores. She used to think she was other people. Other people have truer lives.”
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.
Wednesdays are the best days. There is no sport after achool and Graham does the drop off. I have ususally recovered from Monday’s twelve hour stint in the vet clinic. I have pottered about all Tuesday and got nothing much done and by Wednesday there is no excuse not to write. Of course the hallway is still a disaster zone and doing an internet search for holiday accomodation in Sienna or Paris can be a distraction. And then there is Jonathan Franzen talking about his book Freedom and saying that to have too much freedom is the death of him and really he is much happier if he is told he must just sit down and finish his book or essay or whatever it is he is working on. I can see he struggles too. Asked about the title of his book he said it was his least favorite question.
Anway I am of course no Franzen. I have a book to work on but it has languished now for such a period that I am frightened of it. It has become a mythical thing with yellow teeth and dripping saliva. The thought of it makes my heart race. I have started it and restarted it a couple of times now. Each time I start again it feels afresh and hopeful but after an increasingly short period it begins to thud and drone. There is part of me that just wants to abandon it altogether. Perhaps give a new project a go. But maybe there is something there and if I push on with it I will find it out.
Instead I am writing this dribble. So perhaps Wednesdays are not good afterall.
There are six adults and six children under nine. It is a military style operation to get there; to make sure we all have our beach gear, Italian coffee maker, global knife, parmesan grater.This year we didn’t take the eggshell foam mattress to put atop the hard bed with its slippy vinyl cover. Later we regret that, when we wake stiff and feeling our middle age. It is a half hour ferry ride across choppy water. There are the women at the accomodation office to get past. Each year the scrutiny of the Rottnest Island Board gets more intense. Soon they’ll be retinal screening.
There are three boys who are between eight and nine years old. Two are blonde (one has never washed his hair) and one is dark. The dark haired boy is the elder, freckled and takes the lead. They become specks on the beach. What can they be talking about as they amble, the three of them, towards a large sand dune with a boogie board to send down the slope. They love to ride their bikes and go to the shops unattended by an adult. This is the first year that they have seemed mature enough to do it. They must buy white sugar for the morning pancakes. They get sugar cubes by mistake and I am reminded of sucking a sugar cube, feeling it dissolve between tongue and roof of mouth.
Soon they are angling for a yoyo each. They are counting up their coins. They ask for paper and a pen so to do the maths. Hugo The Brave is the one to ask the adults for the extra cash required. At first it is four dollars then it is ten. No is the answer.
But there are rocks to climb, quokkas to count and the West End to reach and seals to see that loll like fat women on lilos. Their flippers poke from the water, warming themselves in the midday heat.
At Longreach the dunes are irridescently white. The weather is fine. So fine that the water is a relief. Its coolness can be a shock. Ears ache after a big swim. The bay’s seaweed is a deterrent. Pete and I swim out to the green buoy and beneath us swims a ray, bigger than our arm span. A Steve Irwin ray. We watch the water. Its rhythm and its beat.
The boys catch inedible fish from Fay’s bay, but on Baboo’s boat they manage to catch skippy to eat. On the jetty they catchbug eyed squid and, dropped on the boards, the squid gives a fluorescent light show. Into the inky bucket they bring back to the cottage Emma reaches and pulls out the squid. She prepares and shallow fries its sweet flesh and we all eat the entree the boys have caught.
Rottnest is about the beach and the sun and the hunger for large lunches. Masses of bacon for nine BLTs. Wine in the afternoon on the verandah watching the sky change colour. Sitting on the couch that has been manouevred outside with my feet up I read William Maxwell. Music is discussed endlessly. 1001 songs to hear before you die. The Rolling Stone mag is bought – a Beatles tribute. We can see the mainland in its haze of heat and smog.
We have a dinner at the pub and fend off the seagulls that threatened to steal the kids’ food. The littlies bring cups of seashells from the beach to tip on the verandah. To the right of the blip on the horizon that is Perth smoke can be seen. The next day we discover it is the Claremont council chambers that have been lost to fire. Riding back to Longreach Bay at night the boys must avoid the quokkas that poke from the road like furry rocks.
The boys take sand into their beds at night and scrunch up their sheets. They climb in and out of their bedroom window and leave wet board shorts on the floor. They wear the same t shirt for days and their skin begins to brown. Jack gets sunburnt under his eyes.
Camilla has the youngest children and she is curtailed by the timetabling of naps. The toddler and the baby fight over the beach equipment. Afterall it is new and shiny and the green beach watering can is a very fine thing. The bucket wars. The wear your hat war. Wars over sunscreen and wearing your rashy. There are treats handed out and eaten with a coating of fine white beach sand. Raff is three and desperate to be included in the games of the big boys. Hi guys, where are the boys? He does his bit in the construction of the beach pyramids and the lining of the river Nile with beach grass trees.
Pete, Graham and Troy use the skim ball till their middle-aged shoulders are aching. They switch to their non preferred arms and laugh at their girly throws. Beach cricket gets too competitive and the small boys have wandered off and left the Dads to it.
In William Maxwell’s So Long See you Tomorrow I read “My father was all but undone by my mother’s death” and I love the use of undone. The idea of the man unravelling, of him never being whole in the first place. In my head there is an image of the man, the heart of him threaded as if by a shoelace and then it is gone and he has spilled out.
Yoyos are bought. One is dodgey. Jack has the dodgey one. It pivots and fails to come up its string. Donk it hits the ground. They are for ever winding them up. Hugo’s is working and Jasper’s too. Graham can still Walk the dog and Round the world and Baby’s cradle. Remember Coke vs Fanta.
When Hugo, the nine year old, must go home to the big smoke of Sydney the two eight year olds are without their rudder. The two blonde boys are undone. They go into a slump, saying Rottnest is no longer fun without Hugo, and it takes them a day to rediscover their own spirit. Jack gets a new Yoyo. It works better. Monopoly deal around the table, but Pete feels the need to get outside and ride. Otherwise children could end up embedded with crazy bones.
Jo and Steven’s kids turn feral after dinner. There are four screaming children in a mosh pit on the floor by the sink. Louder than loud. Pete suggests no holidays with children under five. Tom Tom is forced to give beetroot a go and proceeds to vomit over the verandah rail. A bucket of water is sloshed across the concrete. Emma can’t stand it any longer. I’m done, she says, retreating to her cottage. Steve and Pete argue the virtues of the calender ap vs the To do list ap of their Iphones. Neither will back down.
The boats in the bay turn to signal a change in the breeze. Near the shop the sound of the large wind energy vane; whoosh whoosh. Monotonous and beautiful. Ducks on the ocean. The wind sings through the Rottnest island pines. A family stands outside their unit while a metre long Dugite snake slithers around their yard, tongue flicking. It slips around their bike wheels and through a helmet that lies on its side.