Type
Article
Category
Fiction
Friday Features
Friday Fiction

Fiction | Hummingbird cake

You died last Tuesday, while we were both sitting on the couch watching a YouTube clip about hummingbird cake.

When I think about it, it’s possible you actually died during the recommended video afterward: Super easy beginner’s guide to peanut praline. The hummingbird cake video said the real trick was making your own praline and crumbling different-sized pieces over the top of the cream cheese icing, so it looked more authentic. Pair with edible flowers and your guests would be in for a real treat. You must have died around that point, actually, because I can remember looking over at you to ask if it was really going to be that easy or was Jamie Oliver just putting us under undue stress again. And who the fuck knows where to buy edible flowers?

You were already looking at me, I think. Opening and closing your mouth. As I watched, you began murmuring to yourself and rubbing your forehead. I remember seeing you knock your own glasses off in the same disturbed way someone wipes at their face when they’ve walked through a spider web. To anybody else it might’ve looked like you were gradually waking from an ill-advised, disorienting afternoon nap. A few confused, violent twitches followed, and you appeared to lie still.

I knew to watch your chest instead. I gave it a full minute, waiting for a small rise and fall. Jamie was enthusing about burnt butter.

Finally, with a small shudder, you rolled your head around in a tight circle and shook it once, twice. Then you looked at me.

‘I think I’ve died.’

We both let a few moments pass.

Your still-warm hand reached out for mine and I let you hold it, despite how it made my sudden hatred of you intensify in that moment. I’d only gotten to your place twenty minutes earlier and had been looking forward to a low-key afternoon of couch sex, cooking videos, and the prolonged use of the rain shower in your ensuite. It used to be such an easy arrangement, yet it seemed like every time we were together recently there was some new issue.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see you were gazing out at the room, almost as if you had heard a far-off noise and were waiting to hear it again. You sat staring with your mouth open, and without even needing to look I knew your bottom lip had that white bubble of spit in the middle that would frequently collect there. I resisted the urge to reach for my phone. Were you enjoying any of this? I wondered whether you were in shock, or if you were actually predatorily present, silently attuned to every small movement or action I might make in this moment, and ready to analyse all of it with me afterwards. I was suddenly tired.

Eventually I gave your hand a squeeze. ‘I think this happens to lots of people.’

 The aglio e olio wasn’t very good that night. I think it was a combination of you removing the pasta from the boil probably two or three minutes too early and you leaving the garlic on too high a heat. The chilli flakes wouldn’t have been my choice, either. It had been hard to stand back and not fix what you were doing, while you were doing it, but you had insisted you were fine to cook. I figured what you really meant was that you needed to cook, needed to busy yourself. You had just died, I supposed. So, I let you.

When I swallowed my first mouthful of tough spaghetti, replete with its burnt garlic and those cheap, dried chilli flakes, I wondered if protecting your feelings had been worth it. On the far side of the couch, you took a bite from your own bowl and tried to smile over at me. The olive oil had left a glossy, juvenile smear over your chin and lower lip, and an ugly thought about the meal—something about your taste buds clearly being the first thing to go—flashed into my mind. I imagined saying that out loud and watching the smile fall from your face.

I heaped a third spoonful of parmesan into my bowl.

 

‘You’ll stay, won’t you?’

You’d gotten off the phone with your mum sooner than I expected. My coat was half on, the 11 tram only six minutes away. We faced each other from opposite sides of the entry hall. You hadn’t changed out of the clothes you’d died in and it occurred to me that those flannelette pants were likely the ones you’d sleep in tonight, too.

I’d given you those pants. Three weeks into dating it had been your birthday and the pyjamas had been an I’m really enjoying the sex, here’s a non-committal item for your birthday gift. You liked them even more than I expected and almost never took them off, even after the blue material had turned decidedly grey in the last four months.

I stayed near the door, my left arm still in its coat sleeve, and ran a series of possible responses through my head. I couldn’t land on any that didn’t involve me leaving without causing offence. Your cat Seamus chose that moment to emerge from the hallway, looking vaguely offended by everything, and you grinned at me like it was a sign I was meant to understand. Like the cat appearing at a tense moment was ‘classic Seamus’ and nothing had changed in our lives after all.

In the dark of your room, you placed your body over mine. I ran my hands up your back and noted the faint warmth remaining in your skin. I imagined trillions of cells ricocheting together inside you, effervescing, each one telling the next to prepare for shut down, like a city-wide blackout tearing through buildings.

Rasping, you told me it was still you. You said that nothing had to change. Not yet. You pressed yourself against me a little harder after you said it, as if you could physically challenge any doubts I might have. It felt to me in that moment as if we were falling out of a plane; you didn’t have your own chute and no matter how futile it was, you were doing everything you could to lock onto mine.

I sat on the toilet in your ensuite afterwards and listened to the soft meows coming from outside your bedroom. Seamus had only just started scratching at the door, polite enough—or simply astute enough, by now—to wait until our night-time noises stopped before asking to come in. I could hear the bedroom door open and the soft padding of feet. Since this afternoon I had started to mentally tally up all the things I had left around your place over the past few months, and as I looked around the small bathroom now, I wondered if you’d notice if I took my toothbrush with me in the morning.

When I re-entered the bedroom a few minutes later, Seamus was scooped up in your thin arms; he was all fluffy belly and head rubs and momentary devotion. Tears were running down your face as you smiled at him and bounced him gently against your chest.

‘Beautiful boy,’ you murmured. ‘Big, beautiful boy.’

 

Next morning, you were googling rates of decay on the couch and said there was an app that could tell you roughly how long a person had before everything came to a complete stop, depending on different factors. You told me the app had a few handy hints in terms of prolonging the time, like staying out of the sun or taking on less fluid, but you said it as if it was something you had already known about for ages. You had that same expression you get when you’ve learned something new, something you think I won’t understand right away. I didn’t see how this conversation was going to be any different from any of the times you wanted to tell me how cryptocurrency worked or where exactly in Wales your grandparents were from.

On the coffee table in front of you, leftover milk foam in your Watership Down mug had dried down around the edges and already looked like it was going to put up a fight in the sink later. I itched to take it to the kitchen and fill it with water. It was your best mug—a picture of a rabbit on the front, reading a copy of Watership Down, with a thought bubble that said, Fucking hell—and, like most things in the apartment, you always let it get grotty. When we saw that mug in Readings two months ago, I had laughed and then explained it to you; you had never read Watership Down, or many books at all really, despite having such a large bookcase in your living room. You had laughed as well and then, invalidly I thought, purchased the mug for yourself. Now it sat on the coffee table in direct sun, rings from previously unfinished cups of tea and coffee stained at different heights on the inside, like a dating system for neglect.

A week after you’d died, you insisted on joining me for the house-warming party that neither of us had been particularly interested in attending when you’d still been alive. The entire tram ride home afterwards I was sure people were looking at you. Before we’d finally left Edie’s place that evening, you’d told me you felt as if that one beer you had was in your ‘entire body’. You said you still felt it fizzing in your fingertips and you’d wriggled your hands out at me to emphasise the point—eyes glazed, giggling, gazing at me through the pathetic, hazy bliss you assumed I also felt. Some people had come barrelling down the stairs then, all cheer and warmth and life, and I snatched at your hands before anyone could look at you. Now you swayed upright on the tram next to me, murmuring and grinning at nothing.

Back at your place you wrapped your greying, lanky body around me on the doorstep, coaxing me to go inside with you. The flannelette shirt you were wearing was stiff from the wash and the point of one collar pressed into my eyelid. You cooed in my ear, promising a warm shower, cuddles and, regrettably, ‘sexy times’. The motion sensor light at the front of your place blinked on and off as you swayed our bodies in and out of its gaze. I pictured all the dark, empty rooms lined up and waiting beyond the front door; I pictured your bed with its once-white sheets. I pictured our bodies beating against each other, yours sacking mine for warmth.

 

My flatmate, David, was making something in the kitchen when I finally arrived home. Vegemite and cheese jaffle. He asked me if I wanted one. I asked him if our other flatmate, Andrew, was home. Both answers were no. I watched the outline of David’s back ripple as he bent down to get juice out of the fridge. Latissimus Dorsi. I’d learned that at uni.

He laughed. ‘Latissimus what?’ I must have said it out loud.

‘Latissimus Dorsi,’ I repeated, feeling a bit stupid but also thrilled somehow. David grinned at me in the half-light. ‘You and your big words, eh.’ I took the plate out of David’s hands and put it on the counter behind me. Then I jumped up so I was sitting, my legs dangling, and I reached out for David’s hips, walking him forward between my open knees.

‘Latissimus Dorsi,’ I said. ‘Runs from here,’ I ran my hands up his back, ‘to here.’ Wordlessly, we pressed our lower halves together, letting them meet for the first time. David hummed as if he were giving what I’d explained great thought. Then there was only breathing. David’s chest expanded to take in each heavy breath and I stared at each swell, transfixed, until he leaned down to kiss me. I opened my mouth and slid my hand up under his shirt, over his warm belly, towards his chest in search of that steady, rhythmic thump.

I reached your place around three, ringing the bell twice before biting the bullet and using the house key you’d given me. It had taken me twenty minutes to get a park and the closest one was several streets back, and on the other side of the tram line. I’d had to follow closely behind a cyclist and then wait for them to peel off in front of me before I could try to start reversing into the spot, but they’d obviously misunderstood and thought I was trying to intimidate them, and they’d given me the finger and pedalled away. I was still imagining locating and running down the cyclist as I let myself into your house.

Inside, every light was off and thin curtains clung to every window. In the living room, you were bracing your upper half up against the back of the couch, the rest of you lost beneath blankets, used tissues, baby wipes and a few empty yoghurt pouches. Saying hello, or asking how you were, felt off. I was still seeing that cyclist in my head. Instead I asked if you wanted me to open the curtains and, with great difficulty, you managed a low ‘No.’ I could tell you weren’t really able to move your jaw anymore; it sounded more like a long, low, agonised hum, as if you were almost completely finished up over there, in the mostly-dark, and someone had just stepped on your chest, finally squeezing out the last of you.

I was avoiding looking at you directly, just like the last time I was here, and was instead vaguely wondering where Seamus was. I still didn’t understand how not once throughout all of this did you offer for me to have Seamus, even after I made a point of how I was thinking about getting a cat, and how much I liked Seamus. Ever since you’d died he’d stopped sitting on your lap anyway.

With a soft thunk your left arm suddenly hit the floor, startling both of us. I let out a reflexive ‘Fuck’s sake!’ You winced, as if it wasn’t something you meant to do but you couldn’t change it now.

At the far end of the couch, I could see that your right foot had already fallen free of your body before I’d arrived. It lay upright on the floor, pointing back in the direction of the hallway, as if plucky and ready to go it alone. I gave myself a moment before I reached down and retrieved your arm, its cold skin slipping slightly underneath my grip. I placed it back on the couch next to you, feeling a little as if I were returning a dog toy that had fallen out of the basket. This was the closest I’d been next to your body in some time and I couldn’t help but steal a direct look—at your mottled skin, the contortion in your neck and jaw. I realised the small strawberry birthmark I used to press my lips to, underneath your chin, was now completely obscured by tie-dye blooms of black and purple across your skin, as if those trillions of cells had finally succeeded in fighting each other to the surface, ballooning upwards and fizzling out in their silent mushroom clouds.

When I lifted my eyes, I could see you were trying to smile at me, more in your eyes than your mouth. Maybe every other time I’d come by, that was all you had been trying to do. Your eyes said you were okay with it, with everything, if I was.

The cat food bowls by the front door were empty, except for a grey, translucent ring of water calcifying in the bottom of one of them. I was putting on my coat and calling back down the hallway all the items I told you I’d go get from Woolies—flour, cream cheese, tin of pineapple, bunch of bananas. I heard the loud, heavy, wet thud, and the brief, tinny sounds of plastic things scattering. Then nothing. I had one hand on the front door, already half open to all the sunlight and colour on the street outside. I let a few more moments pass, then—pecans, desiccated coconut, maybe some raspberries if they don’t look like they’re already going slushy underneath. I pulled the door closed behind me as I spoke, yanking it until I could hear the deadbolt kick in, and then set about fishing for your house key again. I’d already removed it from my keyring a few weeks back, letting it tumble around the bottom of my bag by itself. I closed my fingers around it now and knelt in front of the closed door, preparing to slide the key underneath it.

Faintly, but with enough gusto to be described as haughty, two or three meows sounded behind your door, followed by soft scratches at the join where the door met the frame. Behind me, a large Doberman was being led along the footpath by a young couple. I watched until the dog was completely out of sight, then stood up, inserted my key back into the lock, and opened the door just wide enough for Seamus to join me. Blinking at the brightness outside, he ventured out and immediately leant his warm, small body against my calf. Keeping the door mostly closed, I manoeuvred one arm back inside your place and—with a soft tink—heard my key land somewhere down the hallway. At this, Seamus jumped up onto the waist-high brick fence that separated your place from the identical one next to it and together we regarded your apartment.

For a second time, I listened for the deadbolt, and pulled the door closed.

 

 

Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Sophie Berry-Porter is an artist and emerging writer based in Melbourne. She is currently completing her Master’s degree in Writing.

More by

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this. Lacerating observations and some razor-sharp lines. The unique premise was a cool way to explore relationships. Reminded me a little of ‘Sea Oak’ by George Saunders, which is high praise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.