I visit dad’s on Good Friday with my sister. It’s another wet day and they have the wood-burner stoked and hot, the lounge is an oven. We bring pizza and wine and my sister’s shih tzu puppy, Freddie. My old cat, Mr Jones, sits up and watches the pup and doesn’t seem too excited, but dad puts him outside anyway. As dad let Mr Jones out he called Sophie, the Labrador, to come in from her kennel. As we talked we also talked to the dogs, reassuring Sophie that Freddie was okay, not to be rough. Freddie went on bouts of exploring. Sophie followed him and lied down at a distance to watch. The Grey One, my sister’s old cat, whom Penny is sure is a psychopath, walked across the terrace and looked in on us. He pisses on Penny’s gumboots and leaves and we don’t see him again that afternoon. He’s just letting the pup know he’s out there, dad tells us.
Dad’s medical folder was on the coffee table and I read through it with Penny, she explained the black pieces of his cardiovascular map. They just have to fix some of the plumbing, dad says. The ticker is okay its just the plumbing.
My face becomes red. I take some of my layers off, and occasionally I go and stand outside near the rain to cool off. I talk to Mr Jones to see if he remembers living with me in the city and dad comes out to check I’m not smoking out there. I ask him if he’s been sleeping at night and he tells me he’s been sleeping fine but the medication has him getting up to pee during the night. Later in the afternoon he tells me about the dream he had a couple of nights earlier. He could see from above the surgical lamps as a surgeon was operating on him at the table. He wanted to call out and tell the surgeon not to cut where he was about to, but he couldn’t speak in the dream.
Autumn has been wet. Weeks have dithered beneath a long cloud. Toadstools and mushrooms grow in the fields, leaves stick to windows and wind-shields, small lakes gather in the swales and gutters around the school grounds. At interval I make coffee in the maths department staff room. Carolyn has baked hot-cross buns and the staff are enjoying them with their morning tea, a large daub of melting butter, the smell of baked cinnamon, nutmeg and raisins fills the room. Outside, in the middle of the F-block courtyard, the lone apple tree is almost bare. Its spindly limbs still carry some green apples and when a breeze passes it rains amber leaves across the courtyard. A pair of girls walk through the peppering of windblown leaves. They raise their hands and twirl.
We meet at the pub on Sunday night. Varnished pine floors and rimu tables, the light dim to soften the fall into the working week. She wore a red sweater and lipstick, her skinny jeans rolled up from her patent leather oxfords. As she paid for a pint of pilsner at the bar I smiled to myself. This young woman that had appeared from the internet wore reality well.
The hours crooned and we traded our stories and awkward taunts, family histories and past employment. After our second pint I guessed she was a Virgo, and she couldn’t quite believe that I had guessed it so easily. The bartenders turned all the stools onto the tables and mopped the floors around us. They assured us it wasn’t any kind of hint that we should leave so they could close.
The autumn Sunday was powder blue. I washed the sheets of my bed. I ate tomatoes and toast outside in the sun, watching the sheets on the line inflate and curl in the small breeze. My house-mate made mango tea and joined me in the sun. We argued over who’s love life was the poorest.
Late in the afternoon I visited my mother’s for dinner. My step-father was out front, cut and polishing the car in the driveway. My brother and his girlfriend were hidden in his room. I talked with mum in the kitchen about her latest paintings while she peeled vegetables and made me a cup of tea. She told me about my sister. She asked me about dad’s heart. My step-father passed the windows of the kitchen, a leaf-blower whirring in his hands. He’s got three stents, she reminded me.
I finished my tea in the lounge and watched the last half of a wildlife documentary on TV. Under the Teton Range in Wyoming a colony of beavers were building a dam in a small creek. My step-father joined me and the industrious animals had us smiling and shaking our heads. In night-vision we saw the interiors of the damn. In time-lapse we saw trees felled and cut to pieces. In computer-generated graphics we saw the pond fill and tributaries reach out into the forest around it to float in more timber. For so long, this had been our Sunday ritual I had forgotten about. No matter how different the tastes of my family, we always enjoyed watching wildlife docos on TV together. We all found something remarkable in the talents of other species. My brother and his girlfriend soon joined us, and we gave names to the beavers. The lake froze and the young were pampered and warm in the dam. Mum served our dinner in the lounge so we could watch the end of the documentary. The warm comfort-meal on our laps. The roasted meat and vegetables covered in gravy, the smell of tarragon, rosemary and parsley.
A coronary bypass. This is the what the stranger tells my father. And his insides sink and his head fills with the machinery of clocks and measuring tape. He calculates his age. This is not something he is sure of any more, these days he has to count, he has to remember what year it is. And he looks at the stranger’s hands, and he thinks he’s the same age, thereabouts. There are scars around his knuckles but the open hand is soft. And these hands will be inside his chest. This stranger will come the closest to his heart. And my father thinks of his girlfriend, and children, his brother and sister. He thinks of his age and he measures it. Is that really long enough?
My classroom has become a clubhouse at lunchtimes. Juniors sit out on the front steps and sunbathe. They lie across the cement and grass and as I approach their legs recoil to make a path for me to the door. Inside seniors lounge around the desks sharing youtube clips and rumours from the parties on the weekends. The girls ask to play their playlists through the AV unit and tell me why we should study the poetry of the Broods and Lorde in class. Some draw pictures on the whiteboard. Some share slices of their mother’s baking. Mostly I work there but occasionally I listen, who’s got a crush on who, why won’t they txt me back, I don’t know what I’m going to do in the real world.
There is another world beneath this one. We will meet there when our words forget their meaning, when our feelings are only colour, when we see that the past is as flat as paper.
Days off blur and are as swift as handfuls of water. I eat everything left in the refrigerator. I wash everything lying on the floor. The little one catches butterflies in the yard and asks me to help her keep them in a jar. She draws them with chalk on the driveway. I walk to town with a list of things to keep me home and amused. I get DVDs and beer, I get soup and bread, I get the newspaper and eggs, I get chocolate and fruit. In the park I see Geordie and buy a cigarette off him. I promise him it’s the last time and he smiles like priest on bail.
A Manila folder filled with essays to be marked waits quietly on the table. I bargain with myself to open it. Just after I’ve ironed my shirts. After I’ve visited the folks. When I’ve found the TV remote. As soon as I finish my drink.
Going to bed without setting an alarm is a godsend. I sleep like the king without a kingdom.
Our old song played at the supermarket. I hadn’t thought of her in long time. She’s married with children now, they live in Stockholm. I think the last time I spoke to her was online a few years back. Her father had just died and it had filled her with panic, she was sure she couldn’t be a mother while her heart was filled with so much grief. She couldn’t ask her son anything without crying. I tried my best back then to reassure her, but what did I know, I had no children.
I took time out in the aisle next to the canned fruit so I could hear the song. All of it was so long ago. I closed my eyes and listened, because I wanted to see what memories I still had of us, what the song could dig from the alluvium of all those years. She was still there, but only the tiniest bits and pieces. I could remember meeting her in the wind on the steps of the Chicago Art Institute, the uneven curl of her smile. I could still see her in black, her blonde hair almost colourless. So much of it all, though, was missing. What was left was less than dust at an open window.
I guess this is the fate of such things. Without children there’s nothing sure to hold onto. These connections we make are not made of anything sure or strong, they’re only narratives, and eventually we forget how to tell them.
In the midst of marking writing samples I heard thunder. Out on my deck I watched the storm come in. The thunder was the rolling kind, a crack in a mountain that slipped off over the horizon. I couldn’t see the lighting so I had no idea how far away the front was. I’ve always liked to see a storm coming in. I always make time to witness it. The rain was light at first, and it was still warm out so it was good rain, it didn’t get my clothes wet and felt good on my face. As the heavier rain came I got to see a black swan fly over, away from the thunder. A fine, black brush stroke fleeing the roaring grey. Before the storm’s overture was complete there were hailstones and sun-showers.
I’m always grateful to see a storm arrive, a chance to see and feel the world around me changing its mind.
The heat fills the empty spaces of the classroom. The boys lose the shape of their uniforms, their socks hang limp at their ankles, their shirts fall apart, their limbs struggle to be contained at the desk. The girls faces blush, and their hair escapes their French brads and pony tails. I open every window and door, pull the curtains, and leave the fans on full to torment any stray pieces of paper.
We leave the day’s lessons in the student’s bags. We watch shorts on YouTube and pretend to analyse the parody of Reggie Watts, or the allusions of Tom Waits.
On the way home I purchase a 6-pack of wheat beer from the supermarket. I stop and drink one in the park, swapping another for a cigarette from a vagrant there. We talk about global warming and serial killers. He gives me another cigarette before I leave for home.
I sit on my balcony as the evening falls. I smoke the cigarette and promise myself it’s the last one ever. The cicadas hum out in the dying light like an electric fence that guards the neighbourhood.
I wanted to sneak in and hide in her eyes. The bar was a manic’s daydream. Everyone seemed to be yelling. I had drunk too much and the air felt thin between all the people there. And this stranger who found me, holding the bar for a surer foothold. I couldn’t hear what she had asked me. I didn’t know if we had met before. All I did know was that her eyes were like the clearest of swimming holes. The kind of greens you bathe in on islands near the equator. I just wanted to dive under and float in the cool stillness there, beneath the surface of everything.