Like every morning, Siobhan goes down to buy a Coke Zero and to smoke. The first thing I hear is the click of the lock as she leaves; I think it’s right to say it wakes me. She takes her time; she flirts with the wistful old solitaire who owns the corner shop; she stands, I imagine, gripping the can like a commuter trying to stay upright.
I feel no breeze, but the plastic bar at the bottom of the blind starts tapping against the window frame. It will be hot again. In the hall Siobhan fumbles with her keys. I have surmised that she drinks only while she smokes—Benson & Hedges, like her father—but she always brings the can upstairs. I hear her move around the apartment, pause; she drops and fans out mail on the coffee table. She wears cheap flats like slippers, crushing their black-sequined counters underfoot, and with each step they thwack against her feet like rubber thongs. I don’t have to open my eyes; I see it.
When she comes in, I pretend to be asleep. Thwack, thwack, thwack thwack thwack thwack. Leaning over me, she opens the blind with a few sharp jerks of the cord, making the room blush apricot. Through closed eyelids, the colour is familiar.
Half dreaming, I remember. I was alone in the bush, a few metres from my father’s snoring, lost in the light that seemed to pass through my hand as I pressed it down onto the face of an oversized torch. Memory finds this colour everywhere. We’ve seen sunset smear it like butter over the Brisbane River. That was then.
I open my eyes when Siobhan presses the Coke, still beaded with condensation, to my forehead. She has coffee for me. I’ve been working late as penance for an indolent summer, and I need it. She steps out of her shoes and leaves her clothes in a pile on the floor. I rest against the headboard and sip. Taps squeal; I hear the shower curtain bunch and unbunch; there are familiar thuds in the tub. I can judge, too, how much is left in the can by the cold sound it makes when placed on the vanity, where Siobhan will leave it.
She has been given a thin cardboard cup with an insulating sleeve, and it’s loose; I cradle the drink. Phones are banned from the bedroom, and my hands are grateful to have something to do. I notice that there is a swirl of grease where my nose touches the centre of the plastic lid. My eyes pick at it like a scab; I take the lid off. My reflected face peers up at me, ringed by continents of grit. It occurs to me for the first time that Siobhan might drop butts into the Coke, and I resolve not to check. With hurried steps she pads across the room and transfers clothes to the foot of the bed. Her hair, curled pubically tight, flashes a shocking orange. She steps into underpants and takes the measure of different outfits. Each one is like a promise made with crossed fingers. Since the graduate program ended, she has kept her heels in the car, so she stands on tip-toes, sweeping different combinations of skirt and blouse in front of her body. Her movements are impatient as hunger. Inside her the day is gathering pace.
I turn away and plant my feet on the carpet, holding the cup between my knees. Siobhan, dressed now in a grey pencil skirt and an unbuttoned ivory blouse, disappears into the bathroom. I stand as though I were going to walk her to the door. She slips her feet back into the sequined flats and comes to me. We hold each other and bump lips. She wants to spare me the mixture of coffee and toothpaste but can’t, and we wince together with the sympathy of party guests. We sense everything between us, every ripple, existent and non-existent; it is tiring.
I make my way to the fridge, trailing the thin summer blanket behind me. We found this place—one bedroom with an ensuite, kitchenette, space for a washing machine—soon after Siobhan’s lease expired. The balcony, too shallow for furniture, looks down onto an overgrown courtyard that is crowded on three sides by identical buildings. Looking over the tinted balustrade you see people coming and going like children lost in aisles of pet-store fish tanks. On each balcony, succulents and cacti sit in tubs of day-glo stones. The doors are all left open, most with slatted blinds drawn. We’ve barely spoken to our neighbours.
We’re out of orange juice. My feet stick and slap as I turn on the kitchen tiles. Swaddling myself in the blanket, I hover by the bench and decide on more coffee instead. The little Moka was a gift from the woman who lived across the hall from Neville, Siobhan’s grandfather. I remember his hand trembling as he sliced teacake, instructing me to butter it and take it to her. The Moka was gathering dust in a cupboard. She was glad to give it to a good home, she said, as though it were a puppy.
Siobhan was still in sales and practically living on the road when he first fell sick. I was the one to make the weekly drive out to his house. I hauled out the ancient vacuum cleaner, ran it over the carpet. I surprised him with fruit teas. Siobhan bought suction-cup mounts for our phones so we could talk on the road. They moonlight as charging docks now, next to the toaster. As the coffee percolates, I fish for the last piece of bread. I pour the coffee into the takeaway cup—no sense in adding to the washing-up— but trail drops across the granite. I fuss over it to the point of wasting cleaner and then grab the drink and flee to the bathroom.
Neville never went bald. Looking at myself in the mirror helps me picture it, as though the memory of him were a wig. Things moved quickly once we knew. Twice he pressed cash into my hands. It could have been payment or a bribe; I doubt he knew which. In the mirror I purse my lips like he did when I refused the money. I took his furniture instead, one piece a week as we searched for a final home for him. The idea, Siobhan would remind herself, thumbing the filter of a cigarette, was to give him time to adjust to leaving. But it broke him. It was as though I had taken a jigsaw and cut his home into a puzzle without corners or straight edges. There was no sense in it any more.
I lean against the doorframe. I can’t say what makes me think of Neville. He is suddenly here, like a photo or a preserved moth falling out of an old book. Most of this furniture came from his house. I see him holding a floral teacup, a marbled shoehorn, a leather strop, stricken by utter perplexity—by Unzuhandenheit? I try to see the room as he saw his. I imagine the coarse, unstained wood of an upturned bedside; I feel its weight pinching the flesh of my fingers. It’s too much. I imagine dividing the furniture for sale, but it only makes me think of a story I read in school, ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ I wish I had a name for the feeling I get when I read ‘His side, her side’. In the manuscript, Carver wrote ‘His side, her side’; in the published version—which is better in at least this one case—the words aren’t italicised; the line is its own paragraph. The breaks force you to stop.
I hadn’t thought of Neville in months.
I stand naked in the middle of the room. I’ve slept naked since I was a child. The blanket lies puckered around the base of one of the barstools, where I have sat and let time pass like an overfull bus. Outside, the wind picks up. I move the stool to the side and gather up the blanket. I start to spread it over the chaise, part of a modular that was one of our few committed purchases. I stretch out on it, feeling the solid warmth of the sun settle on the room like dust. I close my eyes and concentrate on the displacement of the foam as I wriggle to find comfort. Its dry-sand whisper stilled, the apartment is silent. A film of sweat covers my chest, my arms. In the emptiness of the place movement would be obscene. I remain like this, seething from the pricking of the blanket. I no longer think about anything.
My hands and feet hang limply over the sides of the chaise. Gazing up at the fractured white of the ceiling, I feel the floor beneath me start to recede. For a moment, I’m seized by vertigo. Then I fuse with the chaise, and I abut out on a hundred feet of empty air. It is any day. I am smoothed and pocked by the wash of time and repetition, my skin hot as sunbaked stone.
Thwack, thwack, thwack thwack thwack; thwack thwack thwack thwack. Siobhan stalks into the room. She looks at me only for a moment, enough for her to take in the sweat pooling on my chest, the erection dropped onto the incline of my belly. I’m aware of the takeaway cup sitting on the cistern in the bathroom, the cold toast in the toaster. She modulates her expression into the blank distraction of someone passing the George Street homeless and walks calmly into the bedroom. I hear her silence with the same sharpness as I heard her steps outside. It has density, sharp edges; you could stack it. I think she is sitting. Perhaps she has dropped her bag onto the bed.
Something opens in my chest and I am p
d into the shame of self-indulgence without pleasure.
The shame of habit.
From the bedroom she says quietly that she forgot her phone.There it is, squeezed into the plastic mount next to the toaster. She comes to the doorway, and I scrabble back like something cornered. Standing on the threshold she looks at me. She utters high notes of disbelief, cupping her hands to her mouth as though she were sneezing.
She moves quickly, snatching the mail and dropping it onto the floor. She drags the coffee table from the majuscule L formed by the lounge and the chaise.
She kicks off her shoes and perches on the corner of the table. She brushes lint off her feet, resting each in turn on the opposite knee, before standing and pressing her right foot into my chest. Her toenails are painted the rich purple of a bad bruise. She pins me to the lounge. In the attitude of someone labouring over an old lawnmower, she grabs for me. Her eyes search for something behind mine. It’s an awkward position, but it’s over quickly.
Flushed, we lie here. We stare at whatever you stare at when someone fumbles with your camera. Siobhan massages her forearm. She laughs. It pours from her. I stand, and she grabs my wrist. She pulls me down, and we collapse like discarded clothes. I turn my head to her. Amazed, we cannot look away. We laugh; we revisit tenderness. •
Note: The sentence ‘We sense everything …’ is from John Updike’s ‘Wife-Wooing’.