We are on holiday. You have what looks like dirt matted in your chest hair. When I wake, I look at you like some kind of foreign object, without meaning to. Like you are suddenly alien, brought into sharp focus. It’s like snapping out of something. Or maybe I have been coming around for ages.
In the curtained light I make out your fourth-degree-or-so burns. As I move I’m tender all over. Looking at you with your lobster face and me with my inexplicable sore spots, Barbra Streisand comes to mind, singing Aren’t we a pair. I try to conjure some more of the lyrics to make sense of it, but there’s nothing.
And life then comes back to me in increments.
I had left Georgie in the spa pool at six in the morning. The chemicals bit my skin from overdoing it, my flesh goosy and greyish. The mountain light was seeping upwards, indicating a flawless new day. We were both half-naked, my once-worn wedding outfit strewn over the trellising. I hardly knew Georgie, although I had known her for years.
I don’t know why we had no clothes on; maybe it just seemed more honest that way. That, and our inhibitions had gone the way of our sobriety.
I held her in the cloying lukewarm water. The air around us was syrupy and blue, fading, jets gurgling. As she cried her shoulder blades hiccupped, ribcage tremulous, slack breasts bumping mine. I smoothed the back of her wet hair with the flat of my hand. I tried to reassure her but I have never been a very good liar.
What was happening to me that weekend had a medical name but I didn’t know it at the time. Actually, there were two medical things happening, completely unrelated. But I didn’t know that, either.
Before we left for the wedding, I had trouble regulating my breathing. As the minivan idled outside, I tipped the contents of my toiletry bags out onto the bed and made you help me sift through them on hands and knees to find my pills.
“Take one,” you said.
I nodded, mid-swallow, and took the second as you turned to leave, slipping two extras deep into the lining of my summer coat. Truth was, I could have taken five right then and still been majorly out of sorts. It was like throwing placebos into the gaping chasm of a whale’s mouth, but I would have given anything a go at that point. You saw it differently, though. Sitting in the rental car outside the Church of the Good Shepherd on our way down here you said I was like a living Mentos and Coke experiment. But all of the spectacle and none of the fun part.
I dignified your barbed observation with silence: the jewel in my crown.
The view was flat and wide, reaching out to a dusty lip of hills. And then the six o’clock news came on the radio; there had been a shootout on a motorway. That gave us something else to talk about, a frisson outside ourselves, and life resumed, as it has a way of doing.
There’s a point in King Lear, and I can’t remember how his lament goes, where he recognises that his rock bottom is a false floor, that there is further yet for him to fall. This morning I have a sort of lying-down vertigo. The feeling that maybe the chipboard floor is going to give out from underneath me at any point. Cave Creek comes to mind. Like I’m suspended on a platform in a canyon, taking in the birdsong, not yet knowing the utter, unfathomable depth of things.
You, as always, seem totally rooted. A boulder in the middle of the bed, splay-legged. A hatred for you wells up in me with a righteousness I’ve never felt before. I don’t know if it feels like clarity or if it feels like rage; but it feels like something, which is something in itself.
The day had been blistering. The mountains kept the heat captive, shimmering and airless. Lake Wanaka spread out behind us in the most surreal shade of turquoise. (Later, when I looked at the photo Will had taken of us on his iPhone, you were stiff and usher-like and I looked anaemic. Meanwhile our backdrop was a million diamantes. It had sucked the sparkle and charisma right out of us.)
During the ceremony itself I cried for the sheer love of it. You looked askance at my fuzzy, stunned-mullet tears, as if to say here we go. I was crying because that’s what I do at weddings. You know that well enough by now; we’ve been to enough of them. Including our own. I didn’t say that to you, though, not with the hush of the procession going past, her train swishing across the tussocky grass. My nose ran hot into the corners of my mouth and I pressed the backs of my hands hard into my bronzed-up eye sockets, as if stemming blood.
There were people I hadn’t seen in 10 years. The mother of the groom was a picture of stateliness in well-darted crimson silk and many coatings of super-hold hairspray.
I hear you’ve done very well, dear. What is it that you do again?
Beauty editor. Fashion magazine. Cum set consultant, sort of thing, I told her whilst negotiating a skewered shrimp.
Ironic, really, me standing there with panda eyes and my matte finish all smudged and dewy, oil collecting in the corners of my mouth.
Ah, that’s right. I did always wonder what you would do. You were always so ambitious. I knew you’d end up offshore. I hear your husband is in television over there. Is he terribly famous?
He’s in current affairs. And no, not really. It’s not the BBC or anything.
And, tell me, do you do his makeup?
Lord knows I have washed the makeup from his collar often enough though, in all senses of the expression. But I didn’t tell her that.
So lovely, she said, lovely, and squeezed the spray-tanned skin on my upper arm so hard it pinched. And an Englishman, no less.
He’s from Warkworth. But I didn’t tell her that, either.
Funny how no one really changes. The skin slightly more papery, faces less rounded, or sometimes more so, sleeveless arms more sinewy and gym-defined, plus the telltale signs of the Botox startle. We milled around on the lawn outside the marquee drinking cocktails and some sludgy punch. All the old university crowd was there. Eyeing each other up, skirting around the edges after a decade or so out in the world. We had our gang though – you, me, Georgie and Will, Steve and Pippa. Plus Tom, who ricocheted around the lawn paying outlandish, laddy compliments, bear hugging and back-slapping long-lost hall buddies before returning every so often to our cluster like a partnerless puppy to be momentarily buoyed up.
Eloise was there, flicking her hair. She sashayed towards us in a – frankly – slutty LBD that made me think of sausage casing too tight for the sausage, breasts hoisted violently upwards towards the region of her throat.
Man eater, Georgie hissed into my ear.
Not one of my finer moments, you had said to me once, when I asked you why you had gone there.
I raised an eyebrow at you as she barrelled into you. Georgie and I smirked. Will got in trouble for returning from the bar with a drink for me but not one for Georgie.
You didn’t ask me though, George. He crouched down to her eye level and handed her his beer as a peace offering.
No, but neither did she, Georgie said in a small voice, nodding across at me.
I stepped away and looked out at the lake, pretending not to listen in on your conversation with Eloise on her favourite subject.
On hiatus, she said, in her breathy way, as if this was supposed to be mysterious. I’m writing a novel, though, but it looks like the film will come first. I’m being courted by a small production house in Melbourne, actually.
Another flick of sunbleached hair in need of a conditioning treatment.
And it’s about? I can’t tell from your expression whether you’re impressed or incredulous.
It started out as a true account of my sexual encounters. Friends kept telling me it was criminal I wasn’t writing it all down. But now it’s sort of about a dominatrix who works as a litigator in Sydney, what she gets up to after dark.
I swallowed hard, stifling a laugh. For the record, Eloise also works as a litigator in Sydney. I can’t confirm her extracurricular activities, however.
Of course, it’s mostly all true. She throws her head back. I just call it a novel to spare my mother the heart attack.
Eloise was hanging off your elbow by that point.
Josie! She called across to me. Well, would you look at you! I was expecting you guys to have a couple of kids in tow by now? She was looking at my stomach.
I shrugged, lifted my cocktail as if in cheers. We left the kids in the car, I say, bored. But we wound the window down a bit, and they have got an ice cream container full of water.
As always my sarcasm (or the humourlessness of my humour, as you call it) unnerved you.
No kids. We –
And then it was my turn to cut you off.
Too much fun over there, you know? So many package deals to Ibiza. I winked at her, as an afterthought, and then regretted it.
No, really, you said. It’s just not something we’ve got around to. You looked over our heads then, out to the mountain, as if you were searching for a cue to read from.
Who’d be a career girl. Eloise smiled at me, a smile that almost seemed genuine, with a hint of sympathy that made me paranoid.
I don’t wake you. I pull a T-shirt dress over my head and settle for your paddle-sized Havianas. The communal area is a ghost town. I take egg salad, a cold chop and a sausage from the fridge. I settle on a battered beanbag in front of the TV and watch some reality TV show, A Double Shot at Love, through snow flurries of interference.
A little dark-haired girl shuffles to the door of the TV room and looks at me. She sucks her thumb coyly and trails some sort of blanky behind her. She looks about three. After a time of sizing me up she inches up to me and sits down beside me on the beanbag. She jimmies her toes in under my buttock as an anchor and looked at me with her head cocked.
I’m Josie, I say.
Bite? She makes an exaggerated chewing face, looking intently at my plate.
I hold the sausage out to her on the fork. She takes a bite and chomps noisily.
She smells so clean. Like freshly-broken sleep and talcum powder.
What we watching. She swings herself around to face the TV.
A Double Shot at Love, I tell her.
Mm, cool, she says, as if this is agreeable to her. As if it answers any questions she might have at this moment and well into the foreseeable future. She snuggles in under my arm, tucked supine against my ribcage. I cry soundlessly then, trying to keep my chest as still as possible, so as not to disrupt her wide-eyed viewing.
We sat with one side of the marquee up, looking out beyond the bridal table to the lake. As the sun set, a powdery mauve descended like a gathering shadow on the lake. It deepened into a three-dimensional violet, then cobalt blue, then almost-black, by the minute.
Tom was drunk already and wore a red wine bib. He insisted on sitting on my knee and jiggling his bony coccyx against my thigh. Someone played the spoons and Steve heaved into a harmonica and our table sang Piano Man while waiting for the band.
I hate love, Tom said to me. I boycott the fucken fuck out of it now. He was brandishing a bread knife like it was an Olympic torch.
Careful of my eyes, I told him.
Love is dead to me. Poor Tom.
Well, Tom, I said. Maybe stop falling for little pixie girls who sleep with you for little more than your ID in the off-licence on a Friday night and a packet of smokes in the morning.
And then I immediately regretted it.
Until the next shag, eh, Tom, you said then, master of the diversion, although you weren’t even part of our conversation.
Quite, Tom said, hunching a wannabe-hostile shoulder in my direction. You both clinked glasses, sloshing pinot onto the platinum cufflinks I bought you duty free in Rome on a whim so many moons ago.
Then the band came out and Tom clapped his hands together, heartbreak and minor insult altogether forgotten
So, I said to you, sort of like a sigh, and you filled our glasses right to the brim.
So, you said.
The day before the wedding, we went to Have a Shot to play mini golf and shoot some clay birds. You, me, Georgie, Will, Steve, Pippa, and Tom (who insisted on hugging the parcel tray in the boot and talking about pirates all the way there).
It could have been 10 years ago, us ambling our way through mini golf on a lazy Thursday morning when we were supposed to be holed up in a cold flat studying. But we were better dressed and probably more impatient now, or expectant, with an air of self-entitlement, given that this was our one holiday of the year outside a few long weekends in Amsterdam or Prague.
As you bent to hit your ball out from behind the rough of an Astroturf mound, I noticed that your jeans were freshly ironed. You must have got up extra early and borrowed the communal iron. All I could think (apart from what are you doing in jeans in a heatwave in the first place, you dick) was how the hell did I end up with a jeans-ironer. It was the world’s biggest irony, the most incongruous thing you could ever dream of, right there.
Georgie stood at the edge of the plastic dancefloor with her toes curled over onto the grass. Slightly dishevelled, brushing hair from her eyes, red-cheeked from dancing with the neediest groomsman. She beckoned at me to join her.
Stay here in New Zealand. Why don’t you guys? Just don’t go back. She lifted the hair away from my ear to ask me. My eardrums prickled from the sheer force and heat of her breath.
Na, I said over the top of Do you know the way to San Jose. Not a chance.
I just. Hate. All. These jumped up. Cocksuckers.
The light of the mirrorball caught the glitter on her eyelids. Her face was so close I got her spit in my mouth.
I looked over at you at the dessert table, returning for more mud cake. You were heaping sloppy cream onto Eloise’s plate with a giant ladle. There was something comical about it, something absurdly erotic, in a Benny Hill kind of way.
Outside the marquee, Georgie and I sat against the trunk of an oak tree behind the five-star portaloos, debriefing, avoiding the floodlights.
I don’t smoke pot anymore, I told her nasally, gulping to keep the smoke lodged in my chest. Doctor’s orders.
I don’t do anything but, Georgie said. Things are good with the edges all soft, y’know? She exhaled expansively.
That’s not true, I said. You make pretty dresses. The grass was cool between my shoulder blades. But I kinda like my edges with a bit of definition.
Oh, yes. My dresses. The gowns. All those industrious silkworms.
Georgie kicked her legs in the air like a synchronised swimmer.
Ever get the feeling you’re in the wrong time, she asks me. That you were supposed to be somewhere else altogether?
I was mesmerised by the overhang of leaves, faintly stirring, so green in the diesel-generated light.
Mm, no. I thought about it for a bit. All we have is right now. Just this, I said, and felt beautifully and nobly wistful as I did. I swished a fallen leaf against her exposed wrist.
That’s so bloody Zen of you, Jose. She laughed a laugh that was slow and deep and fence-sitting.
After a spell of quiet, I left her sleeping in the grass.
Where’s that no-good husband of yours? Will was slurring, shirttails crumpled.
You tell me. I took the whiskey tumbler from him hand. Actually, don’t, I said and swigged.
Right then, he said. He pulled me in under his arm and held me there.
Your girlfriend is sleeping in the trees, I told him. A vision of loveliness. Ophelia in the trees.
Don’t start that literary reference shit with me, little Jo.
Don’t call me that, William. I pulled away from him. And you’re the literary one, anyway. I just copied your notes in first year.
He looked at me squarely. And there I was thinking you wanted my body, all that time, when all you wanted was my mind.
Your notes, actually. Not my fault the lectures were at nine in the morning.
No, but then you did better than us all, completely in absentia.
Check me out now though, I told him. I’m the makeup lady. And that’s all I ever wanted to be.
You’ve arrived, then. He passed me a fresh glass of wine, the dregs of a bottle.
I’ve arrived – God yes. And as for you – well, look at you. The brilliant editor, I said. Always so earnest.
You mean the small-time rag hack in a dwindling industry.
No. I don’t. And would you look at that water.
The lake was an iridescent puddle. A million liquid moonbeams.
The night was bracing. The air a soup of warring insects.
Ah fuck, he said, spinning around to face me. It was all so long ago, wasn’t it?
It’s all ancient history, if that’s what you mean. And yet here we are.
That’s true. His face is blue and serious as ever. But how do you reconcile the then with the now.
I dunno. Badly and without any success. I can’t help but laugh.
And what if the now doesn’t measure up to the then?
What if, what if, I say to him with windmill arms, deflecting like crazy.
At the Auckland international airport on the way over here I did something like blank out. It was at the luggage carousel and you were twitchy with cigarette lust. I told you to go on ahead and you did. I watched you disappear into the new country ahead of me, your Prada travel set neatly stacked and your carton of cigarettes nestled under your arm. I don’t know how long I stood there. Watching the rubber links of the conveyer belt slide past, bending and correcting, snapping back into place. I didn’t even recognise my own bag. It kept going round and around until it was the only one there. One lonesome bag, tied with a red ribbon. Me standing there staring past it, my eyes all unfocused.
I bought duty free sunglasses and then managed to lose them in the twilight zone somewhere between customs and the taxi rank. When I emerged the light was so bright it felt like some kind of unwelcome visitation. I had to stop and shield my eyes with both hands, like a horse with blinkers.
You were on the other side of the electronic doors, upsetting the sensors.
Jesus, you said. I thought you’d found a gateway into another country. I thought that was it.
Your distress was hardly palpable.
You made the taxi stop at a petrol station and you bought me more sunglasses from the spinning specials rack, this time with pale blue mirrored lenses. I managed to lose those too, not long after.
At the very end of the vineyard Will and I stopped. The party then nothing but a floating backdrop of gentle clinks and chatter. Glass on glass, the bass from the band, muted trills of laughter. Only the top of the marquee visible, a bright, billowy mushroom against the sky.
Here, Will said and grabbed my hands. Dance.
Don’t spin me, I said, and he spun me. My heel caught the jagged topsoil on an angle and broke.
Please don’t – dip me, I said. He dipped me.
Let me sit, I said. And I sat, nursing a broken shoe in my hand, like a child refusing games, suddenly sulky, my dress bunched around my hips.
Don’t cry, Will said, and I didn’t even realise that I was. He held out his sleeve and I held it against my eyes for a time. It came away inky. I had known him too long to bother apologising, but I did anyway.
Sorry, I said. It’s nothing. And that was true; I had no idea what it was.
He pulled my forehead into his starched collar, into the muskiness of his warm neck. He smelled like an ad for someone’s laundry, clean as clothesline sheets on a Sunday in springtime.
No, I don’t, I said. Which meant: I don’t want to.
That time, he continues, that time we top and tailed, in the middle of that vile winter. And all of a sudden it was morning. We had Mazzy Star on repeat all night because we didn’t want to upset our body temperatures. And by the time I got around to telling you, I mean, by the time I got around to saying it, you were fast asleep.
I said nothing. I was slack-jawed against his chest, intent on the burr of his words inside his ribcage.
I wasn’t fast asleep that morning. Easier to fake it. Better a white lie than a rude awakening.
Thank you for my A+, I told him groggily, slumped against him.
I said things, that morning.
What morning, I said, knowing full well.
I can go years without you, now. Seriously. Most weeks I wouldn’t even think about you. And then it only takes one thing. The stupidest most nothing thing.
Will. The thing you’re holding on to, I say, pushing him away from me. It isn’t me. It’s something else. I mean, look at me.
Look at you. He slipped his hand inside my dress and held my breast in the palm of his hand, his thumb against my nipple. His hand was warm. The moony light around us was the darkest possible shade of white.
No. Don’t. I puledl myself back into my dress. I kissed him at his temple and it felt motherly, bedtime-ish.
If only I knew what you wanted, Will said.
You and me both, I replied.
Then I couldn’t find you anywhere. The party had thinned out. My feet hurt and I wanted bed.
Tom lay like a starfish in the grass, swishing his limbs. He had tied his shirt around his head, Rambo-style. Skinny boy torso, ribs gleaming in the night.
Dunno, darl, he said when I asked him. Last time I saw him he was talking to that huss.
He propped himself up on his elbows. Nothing weird though, Josie. He looked worried.
We walked home along the side of the road, hand in hand. Me in broken shoes, Tom still shirtlessly heroic.
He told me about the time he dislocated his shoulder in the primary school pool with a particularly cruel bellyflop. He stopped to show me the smiley face scar on the inside of his wrist that he made with the imprint of a hot Bic lighter in high school. It was dark and all I could see was a faint red half moon. It’s always show and tell with him. He has always had a kind of bright-eyed innocence, as beguiling and sweet as new love. It gets me every time.
Briefly, badly, he attempted to carry me in a fireman’s lift, and then with both arms in front of him like Ralph Fiennes in the epic scene in The English Patient, complete with an improvised voiceover.
I never really liked you, Georgie said to me, when I first met you. She pressed the bubbles button on and off. Nothing happened.
Somewhere in the distance Tom and Will were sticking toi toi through the fence, seeing if the horses would eat it. The air was so still you could hear Tom neighing from miles away.
Okay, I said. I fanned water through my splayed hands and waited.
I don’t blame you now. Her face was all shadow.
Did I do something?
The water was gritty, not much warmer than the air.
Not on purpose. Actually, not at all. It was just easier to hate you.
Instead of Will, I mean.
Nothing ever happened. I folded my arms across my breasts, instinctively.
I know that, she said. Maybe it’d be better if something had. Maybe if he had got you out of his system.
I am out of his system.
So he tells me. But he shouldn’t have to. And I shouldn’t have to ask.
Out of nowhere I pictured you and Eloise against a wall.
Nothing is perfect, G, I said. I tugged at her messy wet ringlets.
No. But I don’t know how to walk away.
Ha, I said. You don’t know how to let go and I don’t know how to want to hang on. Maybe somewhere between us all is a happy medium.
George’s eyes flashed at me, big and dark. Y’know, she says. Maybe Tom’s the happiest of all of us.
And with that he was slapping at our rickety enclosure and wolf-whistling, and we were squealing like school girls and scrabbling for our clothes, all of a sudden prudish.
Now we have so many hours to kill. So many connecting flights. I want to pan for gold. You want to go to Puzzling World. Actually neither of us wants to do either, but we have to do something. I couldn’t just keep sitting there, folding and refolding our clothes for hours on end, in total silence, kneeling until my knees ached, like my life depended on it. Folding your grass-stained trousers in on themselves, shaking dirt out from the pocket linings.
There’s no gold left, you tell me. It’s all just marketing.
Even just a splinter of gold, I say, already defeated. I’d be happy with just that.
Instead we stand in the Hall of Following Faces where a little Japanese girl has lost her mother.
Don’t stare, you say.
I wasn’t. I was just trying to avoid hundreds of warping plastercast eyes.
We make our way in single-file through life-sized holograms and sloping Alice in Wonderland rooms, Eschers and tricky dioramas. I unload a journey’s worth of coins into a Perspex collection box for Ronald McDonald House, one by one, while you play tourist emperor in the Roman-style bathrooms.
In the Great Maze I immediately want out. I want out with every shred of my being.
I can’t tell if all the dead ends are identical or if we’re stuck in an infernal loop.
I can’t do this, I tell you. Any of it.
I make it to the exit in time to vomit in the middle of the car park.
No more Puzzling World, you say, and try to hold my hair back.
Leave me alone.
And I mean this in every way that it could possibly be meant.
But we’ve only got the one car and half a world ahead of us. Travelling side by side through time zones in tight seats. With only the occasional reprieve of an airport bar or a wall of magazines.
I can’t be sure if the gaudy towers are pitching forward at me or me at them.
In the departure lounge we sit apart, although we’re checked in together. I pretend not to notice you on the phone, pacing by the windows. Your neck cricked. Your hand shielding the mouthpiece.
I fumble in my makeup bag for the crumpled emergency box and check the seal on the plastic foil inside. Part of me doesn’t even know what I am doing. I touch it blindly and then the words come to me from earlier. The song that has been stuck in my head all day is Send in the Clowns. It makes as much sense as anything ever could. I laugh until I can taste liquefied makeup. I want to tell Tom. Telling Tom would make it okay.
I know who you are talking to. And even if you’re not you might as well be.
Somewhere over the Pacific I gatecrash the business class cubicle. I stand in the dirty artificial light of the dull metal cavern with an incessant sucking sound in my ears. My face is totally still but in my head I’m hearing Me here at last on the ground, you in midair. I don’t know if the voice belongs to me or Barbra.
Send in the clowns.
I hold the stick out in front of me and watch it change.
Here we go again, I say out loud and watch my mouth intently as it moves. Someone’s banging at the door.
In years to come, this very moment will come to be my own personal definition of aloneness.
I don’t know how I want for this to end. But I know it will, one way or another.
Don’t worry, they’re here.
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