All this time (3)

4.17 PM

You walk back from the bar, a drink in each hand. You smile, a grin that slips sideways as you get closer. For a second the air shimmers and flares, a bright magnesium glow around you, and I have to look away.

The world has always looked different with you in it. When I saw you walking up the stairs, when you looked up from your phone – I’m here. At the rooftop bar. In the corner – and found me, it was that same sudden, silver glow. Clouds blocking the sun, and every particle of light directed at me.

I forgot, for a second, how to breathe.

And now you are here. Awkward hellos out of the way – our first hug all angle and impact – and the first few minutes of conversation navigated. It’s nice see you. It’s nice to see you, too. You look good. So do you – nice glasses, by the way. Yeah, I finally gave in and admitted I’m getting old. Ah – me too. Empty wine glass lifted in a toast to that, and you jumped up then – Let me get you a drink. I’m dying for a beer.

Both forgetting we said we’d meet for coffee. In the sterile safety of afternoon.

All this time (2)

3.29 PM

There is a table free in the corner. There are two perfect rings melting on its wooden surface, the trace of glasses and people here before me. Two drinks set down across from each other, and I wonder about the drinkers, why they were sitting in the corner of a rooftop bar on this Tuesday afternoon. A long-time couple enjoying an extra long weekend in the city, perhaps? Or local students, trading their lectures on Art History and Foreign Policy for gossip and beer? Maybe two people on their first date, an afternoon catch-up, which always seems safer in the beginning. Forgetting that drinking with the sun can bring a lull to the senses. A softening of the edges, an inching open of doors sealed shut when veins and minds are clear.

That first meeting is so terrifying in its possibility. The idea of someone that precedes them, the idea of what they might become to you. I understand why people need to drink the calculation away. Sober and hopeful is its own kind of naked. There is nothing to protect you from the future you, the imagined you. That better version, beckoning, and ready to disappear with the first disappointment.

It is better to be drunk and fully clothed when life throws you maybe this time.

I wasn’t drunk when we first met. My hand kept trembling when I picked up my wine glass; I had to keep setting it back down so you wouldn’t see the shaking. There was something happening under the skin, a quickening. I thought – after – What was that?

It took years for my question to be answered.

I order an expensive glass of Pinot Gris, ask for ice to be added, and the Barman honours my request with a frown. I need this wine to last half an hour, far too long to be a purist. The first sip tangs on my tongue, and I put the glass down reluctantly. The temptation is to drink it fast, let the sun-yellow liquid bolster my nerve. I’m not losing it, am I? That nerve? Sitting here on my own, hair damp at my neck from perspiration. In my casual, pretty dress with straps that like to slip, fall – as they both do now – from my shoulders. Exposing them, leaving them bare.

This view you could seldom resist.

This isn’t about nerve at all, I remind. The worst happened – and you survived. You don’t need courage after that.

The worst. Losing you. That resignation. Which felt more in the end like losing me.

I never did explain why I left. Or more importantly, what kept me away. I trace my initials on the condensation of my wine glass, watch their form fade, then disappear. Thinking of you. Of that time, before.

There are minutes now, not hours, to go.

All this time (1)

2.03 PM

It is too early to leave. I need to wait another hour at least. I have been thrown one of those unseasonal days this city is famous for; it is all shimmering air out there, when the date suggests it should be something more autumnal.

It is too early to shower, even. I half undress anyway, slide off my grubby t-shirt, and pace my bedroom topless, hands reflexively going to my chest. I’ve never been sure just what my neighbours can see. The way the window is positioned, angled so oddly, they either have a direct line of site – or no view of me at all.

Funny to think I might have been watched for two years now, so easily. Someone knowing my routine, someone waiting for me to wander into my bedroom, to strip down at all of the 6 pms I’ve spent here. I never can keep my clothes on after work. I need to immediately shed them, like the day I had to wear them for. In hindsight, curtains would have been a sensible addition. But I have always been loathe to shut out the light, it is filtered enough already by grey buildings, and city clouds.

Whatever survives, I want to let in.

I could shower. Maybe take a longer one than usual, or wash my hair. Then, just before I go, if I’m too sticky from this afternoon air, I could jump back under the water for one last minute. Use those expensive lotions I have been saving, let their scent wash over mine, soak gardenias and white lilies into my skin.

The scent of you is dangerous.

You said that once and I couldn’t breathe. A revelation offered, a telling of truth on the stand. It is not what you were known for.

I remember you in sentences. Not much more than that, these days. You’ve been shifted to somewhere deeper in the brain, I suppose. On occasion, something else fires, a memory pushed to the surface, something textural, something I can feel between my fingers. But it’s mostly just words. A passing comment you left behind.

They generally come to me like this one, hovering out there on their own. Ellipsis, more than explanation.

I shower. Wash my hair and then immediately regret it. This new conditioner worked better a week ago, softened my hair, made it almost silky. But now as I dry myself off, I can barely get my fingers through its length without one knot then the next resisting. Shit. I need my hair to co-operate. I need to look polished, cool – and my hair has always been my give away. Evidence that I’m not quite ready.

I turn the shower back on and step back under the still hot water. I’ll massage the conditioner in more vigorously this time. At least it gives me something to do as time ticks its way toward you.

Till we drowned

You would keep your landscape pristine forever.

But I have broken you apart a thousand times all the same. Crashed against you, cracked through your surface and swum in your veins till we drowned. I have been your natural disaster, your flood and tempest, the violent wind that scattered your bones. I have held you under and pulled you back up, submersed you for a different salvation.

I have conquered your landscape. And surrendered you mine.

Have you ever noticed how the sun splinters itself on water, my love? Not everything has a desire to be whole …

(the love that I loved)

Gracious

… This name that was mine from the beginning.

In every beginning an ending is written.

It is one of the very first things I told you. When I would lie naked in your arms, spinning my stories. The mind of a poet, and the body of a goddess, you once said against my chest – and I wrapped this description like a gift. It was rare for you to be so gracious with your definitions, Mack.

Mack.

I did not know that it would end like this.

Mack and Mabel lyrics by Jerry Herman

(It was so easy to name you. I knew him. And then I met you. The recognition was instant.

And you never, ever did send me roses. Just like I forgot to keep my head.)

The rest of our lives

Talk though we did, my love, there were certain conversations we never had.

On that first trip to White Cliff, we had not yet said I love you. I was hyper-conscious of it, both its absence, and the desire to say it, and those three little words were pressurised inside me on that drive. A funny little vision, the idea that saying I love you is like popping the cork on champagne. Seeing the words rise to the surface like little bubbles, the way they might spill over when finally released. It makes me smile to think of how tightly coiled I was before that first I love you. I knew it had to come from you, that you had to be the one to say it. But you were taking your time, and I was in a kind of agony for fear of what that might mean. I knew that your father proposed to your mother after just one week of dating, and that Joe was engaged to Jane after only 8 weeks. The men in your family had proven themselves swift with their choices. Meanwhile, I was swallowing those most hopeful of words, whilst we talked of almost everything else.

It happened at White Cliff, where that sense of beginning resolved itself into the rest of our lives. We were making love, if I close my eyes I can see this night, see our bed against the window, the gauzy curtain floating toward us in a kind of moonlit dance. Such poetry prescribed to these memories – turns out I have this talent too, Ben.

I was watching the curtain, and you above me, your beautiful, serious face in shadow, your touch just as light on my skin. I need you to know something, you said as you moved inside me, and I closed my eyes, squeezed them tight, listening to your breath, and the advance-retreat of the waves outside. My eyes were still shut when you said – I love you, Anna, and I kept them closed to hold on to the moment, to take in your body and your words. Cells and words absorbed, dissolving into each other.

And I cried Ben. I cried that first time you said I love you, lying there with my eyes squeezed shut. That’s why it took so long to say it back, that was the pause you must have felt, the silence that led you to roll off me, and turn away.

I returned the words against your back, remember?

I love you too, Ben.

I’m in that same bed tonight. Eyes still closed, searching out the memory, embellishing it with ideas of moonlight and dancing curtains. Perhaps all I really remember is the way you said I love you, and how it took so long for me to respond. From then on, it turns out we were only ever going to be able to make light of such declarations. Removing the I from the sentence, learning to hand out love you breezily, this compressed version that would become far easier to say to each other, and to receive.

We moved from declaration to assertion so quickly.

But that first I love you was magic, Ben. I just never told you, never had the language to tell you about champagne fizzing, about phosphorus under my skin. What else did we forget to say across the years?

#

~ Anna, The Memory of Stars

The Memory of Stars by Jacqueline Bublitz

The fall comes from living

Are we each born with a moral compass? Do we all start pointing due north, and waver throughout our lives, swinging back toward the centre in our best moments, spinning furiously at our worst?

Your god tells you that we are born in sin, that we climb out of the darkness and head toward the light. I am inclined to think the opposite. That we are pristine and shiny when we meet this life – that the fall comes from living. We learn to deceive, to bend and twist the truth to get what we want. All of us. We lie to ourselves and each other in a hundred ways every day, and we get better at it the deeper we go.

We did try in our better moments to change our course, Mack. To go our separate ways. We tried to live by those commandments your god made. But the needle would not stay fixed, it would jump and start every time we were alone together, or too long apart. Tracking our bearings against each other’s cardinal points, we couldn’t help but come back. We were constantly pulled in, always finding the way back to our own due north. We so often left that compass spinning.

Sometimes no further navigation is required.

You only ever told one person about us. And you never told me who it was. You followed the fundamental rule of an illicit affair, the only one required to ensure it survives. You kept it a secret, and tightly. But I have always wanted to know just what you said in this one reveal. What pieces of our history did you entrust to this other person? I know only that you made this singular confession. I wonder, which version of our story did you decide to tell?

There is so little you would share with me. So little I know of what you loved. Just those careless, incidental pieces you collected, and returned to me as I lay across you.

You always clutch at your wine glass Maggie – you never put it down. Look at those pictures from your sister’s wedding. God, it’s like an erotic embrace. I’m jealous of that glass, how you hold it. But it’s no wonder you are always half gone, Mags. Ha! Your eyes flash when you’re angry, don’t they. There they go, now. I always know I’m in trouble when I get that look!

Laughing when I tried and failed to wound you in return, deflecting any arrows I would fire at you with a kiss to my nose.

Good lord Maggie, you’re challenging today. Exhausting even. The kiss would travel down. So exhausting. Pour yourself another glass of wine, and I’ll rest my head right here a while, okay? See if I can find a way to make you like me again.

Did you use moments like these to translate a girl you knew, a girl who could make you laugh, even as she set your moral compass spinning?

Or are these the stories you would tell? How we so often fucked in the park at night, how I loved the leaves stuck to my legs, the awkward scramble, the moving of my face to the dirt. How I could make you come in velvet bars and midnight taxis, and up against bathroom walls. Is this the version of me that you left behind? Was I the lover in your story, Mack?

Or did you say that I was merely your eager and available whore.

##

Editing, editing, editing the book. And refusing to kill all of my darlings …