I caught the overnight train to be by your side. A week had gone by.
Monday morning in another city. Different – but the same. The geometry of the grid. Phallic towers, crawling cars and the ever-present smell of exhaust(ion). The flinty grey light of a dry autumn – its colour drained by summer’s dehydrating glare. A place awaiting rain.
And people like ants – scurrying along – electrons in a wire – the current in a quick tempo machine. Click, click, click. I wondered how you stayed afloat in all those writhing rapids. What kept you from drowning?
So I waited on a busy corner. Somewhere obvious. Both of us were visitors, after all. Meanwhile, the office crowd went about their business and I bit my fignernails as the minutes went with them. You were late enough for me feel undermined. It was stupid and I knew it – but there it was, consuming my attention. I was on probation – applying for the job as your girlfriend. Convenience was no longer in my favour. The telephone is nowhere near as hot as the skin.
Relationships are a habit as much as anything else; which made me think: would you bother with it now that it wasn’t so immediate? This rendezvous – it was so arranged. Not like before – when it felt more accidental.
Now there things in the way. Like the world. Like life.
When you push love up a hill does it simply become work? Is it more like determination than desire?
If I was thinking this – what were you thinking?
And all the while people rushed by and none of them were you.
Then – on the brink of snapping – you in jeans and a crisp new tee. Clean shaven. Prettied up. You were like a beacon to me – so much did you stand out against the background. The sheer crush of my relief pushed sudden tears up and out. I was in flood. Seeing you was so intense.
And you just let me into your arms – and I fell against your shoulder, a crumpled lover swooning in your muscle and smell.. You wrapped yourself around me and we stood like a sculpture in the mad grey river. It was only for a few seconds – but it felt like you and me.
You smiled, kissed my riverine cheek.
Then, in your lovely North Atlantic drawl, you said, “You should see the room they gave me this time.”
It was in the city – but far from the lofty penthouse of popular imagination.
You led me through the narrow, teeming laneways to a grim inter-war façade. Behind the fume stained Deco frontage, a series of drab modernist boxes. Humanity sacrificed to a business model. Steel grey cubicles with smeared handkerchief windows and stark fluorescent tubes.
And metal bunks. Two to a room. A scratched bar fridge. The cumbersome box of a mission brown TV. No fucking in here.
“The bathroom’s even better,” you joked, grinning at me sideways – but I wasn’t laughing.
“The guys know to sleep elsewhere for a night or two,” you added, sensing my freeze. If I was meant to be reassured I was devastated. Now I was the pussy that Bret was banging. Obviously these arrangments were standard. One day I would become that Aussie chick Bret used to fuck.
“I know it’s kinda tacky but … I dunno, I thought maybe we could make it cool somehow.”
I looked at you – and you were genuine. There was something playful about it – innocent and fragile as well as careless. And yet it was undeniably acrobatic. Like a superbly honed reflex, sharp enough to keep you out of trouble. Another trick in your kit. As long as you stayed up you weren’t crashing to the floor. Always a hoop in easy reach.
I looked around the utilitarian room and wondered if our time together would be reduced to function. Was this a conjugal visit?
Although I hankered for the thrill of you inside me, I desperately I wanted more than that. Much more. But I recognised in your eyes – in their almost invisible, childlike pleading – that my need was greater than yours. You knew it and it scared you. I knew it and I was terrified. If I had fanned a fire it was surely burning me now.
In the compacted quadrilateral confines of yet another grubby room the pressure of everything notched upwards. Flames sucking up the oxygen. Suddenly it was harder to breath.
“Let’s get out of here,” I panted – and we left in a blur. Back down to streets edged with cold. To the comfort of noise. To another, less perfunctory, more expensive box – where the sound of realisation was drowned out by more tangible cries.
But not for long.
Later – dressed again – we sat in a buzzing lunchtime café where the smell of toasted sandwiches and black coffee mingled with clouds of cigarette smoke and the flock like squawk of unnamed voices.
You held my hand as if in apology.
“This is my life,” you said. “I travel, I do a show, I live out of a bag. It suits me in one way but … “
“Meeting you makes it seem lonely.”
You let go of my hand. Your gaze drifted up – away. You bit your top lip. “Solitude I like – loneliness I’m not so sure.”
“Are you saying I should go home?”
You shook your head. It was a barely perceptible movement, so quiet against the dizzying drone of a city canteen. I had to strain to notice it. Then, in a voice that seemed to suggest you were oblivious to the surrounding clash and bang, you whispered. “That would only make me jealous.”
Though I could not be sure what you meant, it was clear that you were deep inside a private world of import and inter-connection. From the outside it looked beautiful and melancholy – rich and almost literary. As though you were in possession of a spellbinding secret – something to which you could only allude.
“It’s weird,” you said, “but you’re probably jealous of what you imagine I get up to and I’m jealous of what I assume you don’t do.”
I had to smile. It didn’t quite fit. “You jealous? Really?”
“I like the idea of stopping. One day I will.”
There was something about seeing you that way – vulnerable – that was far more reassuring than your delirious sexual consumption of me. You didn’t often reveal it so directly but there was a yearning in you to be truly heard. Honestly and unambiguously seen. Your graceful aloofness and calm self-assurance was as much armour as it was good balance. Much like my so called ‘alternative view’ of the world. Not so much a lie as an obfuscation. An opiate. The morphine of belief.
A beat later you added, “I think it’s simplicity I really want – not excitement.”
“Simplicity can be pretty mundane,” I countered – feeling like I should at least give you fair warning.
“So can excitement,” you answered. “And anyway, why do we always want the exceptional?”
“But what about beauty? Isn’t that exceptional?”
Again you shook your head – this time more obvious. You swept your ivory white hand around the noisy space as if to say: look, here it is – everywhere.
It was a beautiful gesture but my instinctive response was less than elegant. I didn’t ask it out loud but I wanted to know if I was exceptional. The part of me that judges me was horrified. Perhaps you had just shown me something revelatory and all I could think was: what about me?
I sat right back in my yelping, over-exerted chair – not to get a better view of you but to regard myself from a greater distance. I was becoming the kind of clutching woman I had always scorned. I was that stupid girl who measured herself through the approbation of a boy.
Was this what I had ridden all night for? Not slept for?
Lied to my daughter for?
“If everything is beautiful,” I wanted to know, my question absolutely loaded, “what value does it have?”
“Does value only come from rarity?”
“If everyone here could do the hoop like you, how many of them of them would pay to come and see you?”
“Not a single one of them,” you replied – a tiny shrug, a whisper of a smile, the slight raising of a brow. “But I’m so glad you did.”
“And is that exceptional?”
I saw your breath catch at the top of the arc. Your gaze soften, focus dissovle. Perhaps you were looking back through time – listening out for tiny murmurs beneath the cacophonous razzle of the present. Once more your eyes seemed like that of a child – a boy searching through his thoughts for the right answer. The muscular, athletic man who had been fucking me not an hour beforehand was now a soft edged innocent. Every organ in my body lurched – hanging on for your answer.
Then your vision fixed on me and without ado you just said, “Yes.”
And so I chiselled out my reassurance – but at the cost of a perfect stone. Now we were marked. Scratched. Punctured even. And romance is never one for medicine.
In the space of a few hours we had gone from the breathless, crazy darlings of summer to the tethered orbiting bodies of autumn. Hindsight would say that we should have stopped it there – but that’s only because hindsight is also a coward. I would have lost much more than you that day.
Though I’m almost certain what kept me in – I’m still not so sure about you. When we got back to the convenient hotel we had just booked into I expected you to pack up your few things and go back to the steely, shared room of your circus life.
Why didn’t you?
Some days I allow myself the thought that perhaps you loved me. Only you didn’t know how to say it or show it consistently – let alone allow it.
“I’m gonna walk out of here now,” you announced, “but in five minutes I’m gonna come back and we can just start from there. That cool?”
Take the joy upfront, a voice inside me screamed, hoping to bulldoze prevarication.
Riding a swell of reprieve, I opened the door. Your eyes were a question mark – a kind of statement. “Good,” I said. “Because I really need to pee.”