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.
At night the buildings in the distance became a mystic code of scattered light. Above there was an orange haze of Osaka’s light in the smog that loomed over the city. Ed Broody and Sam Tress sat on the balcony and drank umenshu, a rice-wine that had sweet plums infused in it and was very sweet and easy to drink.
“I saw a television,” she said, “in one of the recycling heaps round here. It might still work, if you wanted one?”
“I only ever enjoy the adverts. They’re all I understand. I don’t know enough of the language.”
“You don’t know any.”
“I know ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘excuse me.’”
“You don’t know any.”
“I might be stupid, I can’t speak any.”
“A television might help you, although they do speak too fast for me most of the time. You need to go out with a Japanese girl, then you’ll learn.” Sam finished the rolling of her joint and lit it.
“How can I go out with a Japanese girl if I don’t speak Japanese?”
“Have you ever been with someone that doesn’t speak the same language?”
“No. I can’t begin to imagine how a person could. Have you?”
“Actually, no. But I know a little French, Japanese and English.” Another one of those insinuating smiles as she inhaled from the joint.
“I don’t want a Japanese girlfriend anyhow, technically I have a girlfriend.”
“Technically. Yet you’re over here on your own for some reason?”
“Things were just so miserable back home after the earthquakes. The city I had grown up in was empty, buildings and landmarks are gone, whole neighbourhoods are deserted now. There is just so much lost I felt choked by it.”
“Not Lola though.”
“No, but that’s more complicated.”
“She’s a pretty girl, Broody,” she passed him the joint, “and she’s lived here too which means she knows what it’s like here, what young men are likely to get up to. You’ll wear her tolerance thin if you stay here too long.”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“You’re waiting behind a rock for something.”
“What was that?”
“I think you’re…”
“No, I saw it flash over there.” He pointed out past the apartment buildings, in the sky above it. “I saw something flash in the sky up there.”
“I was just, I can’t believe I’m doing this again, but something flashed up there. No, it was a trick of my eyes.”
“Whitman said he was seeing things lately too. Maybe it’s the grass.”
“It was a trick of sight or something. Or it could have been fireworks.”
“Yes I see it. Over there, it was a flash.”
They sat attentively there for a while and the flashes began to occur more frequently. At times there could be two or three shooting stars that occurred at once, in all different directions. Sam grabbed the rug and convinced Ed to go down to the gardens. She was sure they were on the cusp of something, that this was an atmospheric shower, bits from space that would burn up in the sky all night. They hurried through the apartment and waited anxiously as the lift took them down. Out in the garden Sam lay the rug out on a patch of grass away from the taller apartment blocks so they had a better view of the sky. And laying there on their backs it was hard to catch them all, realising the whole sky was too much to see all at once, yet they tried. Each shooting star made them hold their breath. All at once it would fire up and flash in the corner of the eye and leave a delayed vapour trail that would take several seconds to diffuse. Brush strokes of light and vapour. Ed wondered if it was the pollution that made them appear so vivid and close. There seemed to be so many, like the stars were tearing holes in the haze. Sam held his hand, not to romanticise the spectacle, just to hold his hand and know that he was there, that the sky had turned into some kind of dream and threatened to whisk her away with it. And he held her hand and knew it was only that. Ed had travelled the world to lose himself, to feel foreign and new. But sometimes all it takes is a moment to sit still, to see that the world was on a journey too.
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.
I’ve been drinking every night this week. The paper work from school is piling up, dozens of emails greet me every morning demanding information I don’t know where to find, meetings with people I don’t know. I sleep in bits. I dream of zombies chasing me, ex’s taunting me, strangers shooting me blank face. The calmest place I’ve been is the classroom. The kids share their lunches. They share their earphones and favourite music. They leave love hearts and flowers on the whiteboard.
Her eyes move quickly across the room, though, she would hardly look up, from the coffee cups, the billfolds, the floorboards she treads from the counter to the tables. Her arms are thin, her elbows and fingers raw with eczema. She wears a pinafore with sneakers. She is beautiful in sneakers. If she speaks one foot will hide behind the other, like an infant behind a mother. Her nails are black and her hair is ashen. She bites her bottom lip when she is thinking. She smells the bag of coffee beans when she thinks no one is looking. Her stockings are always black. Her makeup is always thin and wispy. And her freckles, thankfully, she never manages to hide them. Her hands are worried. Her shoulders are heavy. Her voice is hushed like the wind in long grass. What are you reading today? she always asked me. I smiled and show her the cover. One foot hid behind the other. Who reads Hermann Hesse, she asks. Someone wanting to impress, let’s say, girls with Latin tattooed on their wrist. A laugh escaped her petite anatomy, sudden like a firecracker.
Between meetings and morning teas I spent the first days back at school arranging my new classroom and office. There were hundreds of staples to be pulled from the walls, and stickers to be scrapped off the windows and whiteboard. Other teachers from the English Department stopped by to say hello and check out the layout of my room. We discussed the grouping of the desks like petrol-heads would discuss the specs of their cars. On the last evening before the students arrived back, Wit brought a bottle of red over and we drank it in coffee cups. We sat in that room drinking until late, listening to Dylan and The Kinks, comparing motifs we had seen in Top of the Lake. The cleaner shook her head and smiled when she found us still there.
I felt good about the new classroom. I looked forward to pacing the room as the students write in their folders. I looked forward to their questions, and finding their answers.
We require a new name for the day-time moon. We see it is a phantom, we know it is something distinct. We like specific words. We like to feel paper before we buy it. We sing to ten. We daydream through our jobs and education. We write our thoughts on certain walls, and carve our lovers into trees. We know the world is fleeting and write down our ephemera. A shoe hung on a telephone wire. The dimpled light across the river. We read in the sun, or in our beds. We read blank faces on the train. We read when the time allows. We make time. We drink by ourselves and toast good company. We kill our darlings. We collect old things. A typewriter. A radio. An 8mm camera. We argue with undergraduates in bars. We secure small quiet rooms. We squander our time in them. We fill pages with fake band names. We txt old lovers inappropriate things. We reward ourselves with coffee, and a quiet 10 minutes for our thoughts. We are fascinated with new windows. We know all the best park benches. We remain too long and prune in the bathtub. We hold our breath underwater. We collect words like precious stones. We build sentences, that perhaps a stranger’s mind may drift with us.
60 cents short for a ride into town, I lift stray books and rummage through the contents of my drawers and shelves to find more. It amuses me to find small coins discarded around the studio. 20 cents with a passport photo and leather bracelet in a vanity box. 10 cents in a camera bag. Like bread crumbs from more fortunate times, heaven-sent bits and pieces. 20 cents in a cup of pens and lighters. It is a comfort to learn that the absent-minded fragments I’ve left behind can still be worth something one day. 10 cents in a mortar with a pestle and a phone charger.
Some mornings I wake anxious. Before I get a chance to consider the actual real burdens of the day, restlessness and angst have already stirred me. The dream melt from my sleep sticks to my thoughts like a tar. These images, like baleful omens, quicken the blood. In this muddy crossover I am haunted by things I do not understand, a talking rottweiler, a silent fire, and I twist and writhe in my sheets to escape. I am not freed, though, until I can sit up and open my eyes, until I am awake and I realize it is all really just money and my sense of being a worthwhile man.