He pretends to be impervious to her. Engaged but otherwise unaffected. Not at all in a state of deranged hunger. Yet beauty brooks no denial – nor reveres determination – and most games it wins.
Erasmus is well aware of this. Beauty has beaten him senseless many times before. Thus, he is neither alarmed nor surprised when the car door slam of her imminence sends a cloud of panicked butterflies scurrying up from a cavity in his chest and his stone wall turns at once to water.
Aurelia Zhou is therefore immediately and remarkably charmed by the instinctive, almost innocent warmth of his beaten old smile. She sees a kind of certainty in the small and precise detail of it. Whatever else may be true – she is making the light shine brighter in his misty, static world. This realisation softens her. Humbles her even. Makes her feel more like opening up. Washes away her doughty defence.
So that now they are both exposed.
And just a little afraid.
She tells him how she recognised him in his book. That she had read it in his voice.
Oh really – did I sound good as a woman? he wonders teasingly – although he really wants to know.
You sound great as a woman, she assures him. But also as a man. You reason like a man. But you feel more like a woman. And it’s obviously not just a love story.
My dear sweet girl, there is nothing ‘just’ about a love story, he reminds her.
She laughs. Unclasps her toolkit with a crisp, hospital grade snap. Extracts the stethoscope.
Hand to heart, he follows her lead – head held high. I much prefer to keep my profundities and my melodramas indistinguishable from one another, if you please.
She laughs a little more – and he can tell she wants to play. She loves the tumble and rugger of words and wild ideas. And the characters who bring them to life. For her, it is like a dance. A safe flirtation. Her favourite game. One that has already cost her.
So Aurelia allows herself a moment to compose her next line. Would it have been so bad for people to know?
With a tiny scoff of air, Erasmus shakes his head. Well, you saw what happened when they did.
She is not done with her bone though. None of which would have happened if you’d been honest upfront.
He smiles to himself – as though at some joke. I told you – I was honest.
Sure – but you did it in disguise. But why? Did the publishers force you?
I was happy to go along with it, he admits. It suited me.
The money? Or your reputation?
The question has been asked of him many times. He has answered it in almost as many ways. Of late he has settled on this: Partly I was hiding, it’s true. Fiction lets us tell the truth to an incredible degree and then simply palm it off as poetry. But partly I wanted her – the real her, that is – to feel the way I felt. To know – and thereby forgive. And also – it was a vicarious way of loving her. By being in her skin. Somehow letting her voice speak through me.
And what about revenge? she wonders – recalling his previous explanation.
Oh that, he says with arched but thinning brows. That was just a throwaway line.
As she runs through her twenty minute routine, Aurelia recalls what Adrianna has told her. How he had fallen down the stairs in the back yard and lain there all day until Gordy came home from work to find him busted and sunburnt. Together, case notes and Google tell her that the episode in the garden happened barely a month after Erasmus Lyle’s final public exposure. The idea that a celebrated and much syndicated political and cultural commentator could be the real life, old man author behind one of the best loved ‘girl’ books of the last twenty years set off waves of angst, anger and amusement. There was a brief media furore. Topic of the week. Then retirement.
Aurelia is quietly thankful she avoids news media. It meant she missed the megaphone drama of the original scandal. Now she gets to have her disappointment in private. Which she infinitely prefers.
Because she likes to see everything in terms of a grand narrative, she ponders the ways in which his twin falls and her new career have coalesced and coincided. She thinks that maybe his unmasking is a signpost for a similar process in her. To the art letting go – which she knows is a good thing – but just can’t find a way to do.
She is also aware that most of what she needs to let go of is unpleasant: cultural baggage, filial disappointment, the failure of dreams. Yet there are other things far too beautiful: the joy she feels on stage, the nerve wracking nearness of a kiss. The very idea of loving itself. These, she knows, will be much harder to give up.
In mid thought she looks directly up at him. She can see that he is withering beneath her gloved and careful touch. Autumn is in full stride. The ruthless mechanics of the human body shutting down all but the essentials. Glory and sex behind him. Ambition abandoned.
But love still burning – ever the fire.
However, for all that, she has the distinct impression that Erasmus William Lyle is completely at ease with his situation. Calm and coolly slowing. Having done with regret. Accepting.
Does it bother you that everyone thinks you’re a fraud? she asks of him as she closes her box of tricks and prepares to leave for the next appointment.
It would only bother me if you did, Miss Zhou, he answers calmly. And do you?
She looks down. Maybe I did for a few days. But I can see it all now. Man, woman – Chinese, Australian – makes no difference. Love is love. Even if it’s just an act. The reason your book is so full of love is because you are.
Her voice breaks the tiniest bit as she says it – but enough for him to notice. His eyes sparkle. She brings her hands up to a prayer. Bows ever so slightly. He knows that this formal, graceful gesture is a pledge. She will be true with him – and he can be true with her.
Well it is just a love story, after all, he sighs.
And once more, he has her laughing; smiling so broadly she can almost feel her face – her composure – beginning to crack.
Although she knows that her other patients are no less in need, she desperately wants to say something before she leaves. Him in his chair, staring through the ugly mesh of a security door he never locks.
I’d love to hear you read some of it out loud sometime, she bumbles.
He chuckles in reply. Not sure my eyes would permit that, he says wryly. But you could read me some.
This sets off a crazy idea in her head – one which her classic Asian reserve will resist but which her risk taking, emotional side will consider. Will imagine in fine detail.
Perhaps you could come round to dinner sometime, he suggests, interrupting her train of thought. My housemate is an excellent cook.
Aurelia Zhou is instinctively afraid to accept such an offer. It is unprofessional. Dangerous. People will whisper unkindly.
Thank you, Mr Lyle, she responds with poker face back on. I will think about it.
On the balcony of her elevated cubicle – with its city view and downlights, its sleek design and wi-fi – she sometimes imagines she is hovering alone above a great swirling neon torrent of skin and human activity. A world. A combined project. Something she is specifically excluded from. She sits alone in the comfort that compromise pays for – drinking the wine of her sacrifice – and wonders if there might just be another way.
Because Aurelia Zhou just can’t stop dreaming, even though she promised she would not. For although she has her sensible life now and her family are suitably proud, she spends her evenings on the narrow balcony listening to the thrum of the city and fantasising about a boy she once kissed. Thinking of all the ways she can to get back into his orbit. His embrace.
She dreams of a scene – one yet to be written – and she wonders if he will play along.
She picks up her phone. Scrolls down her list of contacts. Settles on his name. It comforts her just to see it. With unsteady fingers she begins to prod the screen. The letters emerge, the button is pressed, the message sent.
Her insides will churn with nerves until he finally responds.
And thereafter her lofty resolve will fall as rain.
Meanwhile, on his broad backed porch, Erasmus is torn apart with hunger – his old body blasted with dumb hormones and the vivid memory of a woman’s approval. He knows it is a wave that will pass but while it is in his bloodstream he is tight with the gnawing pangs of ancient desire. The failing muscles of his abdomen are clenched and each outward breath is a deep and wracking sigh. It feels every inch like need – but he understands that it is not. It is simply the waning male animal in him stretching every frazzled sinew for one last drink at the well of DNA.
For the duration of the tide he will believe that he longs for the selfish validation of her love – as though a final dose of sexual promise will send him to his grave happy in the knowledge that he is, at long last, worth the loving. That even in his ugly disrepair and mounting dysfunction a remnant smidgen of his own beauty is both visible and desirable.
It is a madness he knows well. In his late forties he wrote the book on it. In his fifties he turned to heroin and hookers to replace his awful yearning with soft golden sedation.
He used to punish himself for such lapses but he is at peace with his own imperfections now. Whatever ridiculous extremes his thoughts will leap to this evening he will play his jazz tomorrow, roll his joints and take his nap in the afternoon.
And he will breathe – smile at his own absurd, wheelchair bound silliness – and give thanks for the nearness of oblivion.
There are no answers, he realises. No solutions. No defence against the wonderful, humbling spike of loveliness. Until his dying day all his hard won wisdoms will find a way to shatter in the face of beautiful girl – and he is deeply thankful for this.