I can’t drink coffee. Thomas is drinking his black, taking small swallows and then breathing out suddenly as if imbibing shots of something much stronger. I watch an ant founder and lurch up the wisteria and I hold a cup of peppermint tea until it gets lukewarm and then I throw it back in a single swallow. I can’t drink coffee because I’ve spent too long making it four days a week for customers who feel it part of their responsibility as richer human beings to send it back. They send it back because some coffee has flopped into the saucer when it is placed at their table or because the milk is burnt or there is too much froth or not enough. These are people for whom the eighties are still alive – for whom everything is still in ascent – who transact and bully over their mobiles while giving me secret signals that their lattes aren’t acceptable and will have to be returned. Sometimes they shake their heads in movie-memorable imitations of deep disappointment. They flutter their hands in gentle gestures that say, ‘Go away’. They work in stocks and shares or as judges’ associates, and the ones that don’t have MBAs and have come to their current positions through tenacity and luck with the market are the very worst.
We are sitting in my back garden letting the heat and the dull drone of bees anaesthetise us. Thomas is at my home because his marriage, long a listless mystery to me, is finally over. I do not know why Thomas had come to me with the cavernous grief of his dead relationship except that I suspect I make him feel accomplished by comparison. Since he arrived, his capacity for correction has flourished. He tells me I expect too little of myself.
Thomas is an academic. We once spent many summers getting drunk and making portentous and routinely predictable conclusions about the nature of the world when we were students in our twenties. I do not inhabit the future he had imagined for me.
It is six months since Marie-Louise left me.
‘Sounds like a stripper,’ said my mother, whose girlhood as a Catholic in the 1950s probably equipped her to think lesbians and showgirls are the same thing. Thomas thought she had the kind of double-barrelled name that marked her out as a child of America’s deep south.
Marie-Louise is from Dingley.
The old leaves in my garden are rotting and the herbs the previous tenant planted refuse to die. They’ve dried out and their roots push uselessly at the base of the too-small pots.
Thomas stretches and takes off his sandals. ‘You should do something about this garden.’
There is something in his face that seems self-important, sly.
‘Did you ring her?’ I say.
He leans forward, tearing stalks off the colourful weeds that had begun their colonial project in the yard. ‘She said she doesn’t want any more damage. She says when she’s with me, she doesn’t like herself.’
‘Funny, no matter how different people are they always rely on the same refrains at the end. Marie said that. She said it’s useless, it’s past useless, it’s an injury.’
I squeeze out the tea bag and throw it at the rubbish bin. It lands with a muted smack on the paved edge of the garden.
‘It’s different for women,’ he says, and for a moment I really loathe him and am pleased he has felt the blunt shape of utter rejection.
He gets up, goes inside, takes out the gin bottle and looks at it. ‘All my life I have been good at things I didn’t give a fuck about and now, the one thing I actually tried at … It’s like I’m being taught a lesson.’ He looks like he might weep again, in that heaving way that appears like nausea, the body’s attempt to rid itself of facts that will not evaporate.
‘But you did give a fuck about those things.’
He sighs. ‘I thought I did.’
Why does grief have to be so clichéd, so sodden with repetition, so banal? I clear my throat. ‘Anyway, you’re godless, so there’s no lesson there.’
I think of Thomas at twenty-four, his expansiveness, his enthusiasm, the thin wiry cage of his body and the hungry eyes that jumped behind his glasses. My father had loved Thomas, had invited him over to watch boxing games on the television and tried to make matey jokes. He had been intimidated by Thomas’ intellectualism and my mother told me he would cram in details from the broadsheets to share, so that he could appear erudite, urbane, all the things his own background and poverty had robbed from him. My father saw in Thomas a minor salvation, a figure who could be seen with his surly, strange daughter. A tiny piece of evidence for the small town where he lived that his daughter’s weirdness had nothing to do with hating men or liking women.
I tell Thomas he needs to find something to do during the day. He is crying again. I circle my arms around him and move my hands, shake them, in the awkward murmur of someone who needs to be told what to do.
In the morning Marie-Louise comes by the restaurant and I can’t help wondering if there is indeed some reckoning, some murky pattern moving in the dark that stitches coincidences together so neatly, that brings back old demons and stunted hurts in such a timely fashion.
My white shirt sticks close to my armpits, secured with sweat. I do not speak to her for a little while, because one of the regulars, Nick, a man who calls me ‘love’ as if he is playing the part of an elderly taxi driver, has a complaint. Nick wants to eat outside in the sun but a homeless man, a boy, really, is going up and down the tables asking for change.
‘I’m a fair man, right? Am I right?’
My manager leans over my shoulder, ‘You’re right.’
‘I said, “If you want money, get a job.” Can’t get simpler than that.’
The homeless boy is about seventeen. He spat on Nick’s shoes. I feel like cheering. Nick has been one of the better ones up until now. I recognise the impulse to spit on his shoes. I know what unemployment means.
‘I come here, you know, to get away from all that. It’s a nice place but you’ve got to draw a line.’
I stifle a small giggle. Nick works in tax law and corporations. Every day when he has his coffee I ask, ‘How’s the tax?’ and he says, ‘Can’t complain’ or ‘Only three certainties in life.’ I doubt very much that he has many reminders of ‘all that’ in the marble-floored building where he works.
Marion goes outside to threaten the kid with the police and I am forlorn. I make Nick a complimentary coffee, for all his troubles, and burn the milk on purpose. Surely no-one would send back a free coffee.
Marie-Louise is very pale and wearing a bright red scarf, draped like a beauty queen’s sash across her chest. There is a lurch in me, a lunge towards the old days in me, but I manage to speak to her without betraying myself.
She draws her coffee to her. ‘I have a yoga class now, round the corner. Thought I’d get some caffeine to undo the good.’
I do not know whether she wants me to laugh at her for doing yoga, or approve of it, in hushed tones, a sign that I relinquish control of her choices, that any decision made by her without me must be a good one. She is too slender and I see grey in the roots of her hair, near the hairline. I used to dye her hair.
I tell her I have Thomas staying with me and that it makes me feel sullen and unkind. She has always liked Thomas.
‘I pity the wife,’ she murmurs, glancing behind her as if Thomas might leap out.
‘Because Thomas is a one-trick pony. All that rubbish with her illnesses and staying in bed and being delicate. Psychosomatic. She wanted something from him that she was never going to get.’
I have always thought that Thomas loved his wife. I never managed a conversation with her that didn’t make me feel nervous because she was an ex-HR manager who charted her astrological fate weekly and had self-help books lined in the bookcase without embarrassment. The last time I saw her, she had become cautious and her movements were lean and acute, careful.
‘What?’ I say.
‘Passion,’ Marie says, without a flicker of self-consciousness, even though I have heard from mutual friends that this is what she thought was missing in me. For a moment the world seems to divide into passion-seeking and passionless lovers.
‘What do you mean about a one-trick pony?’
‘He’s clever and very driven and he’s going to keep being both of those things and probably those things only.’
I am teary. Thomas and I tried to have sex once in the early days when my liking women seemed to have little to do with anything, as innocuous and unhelpful as being allergic to spinach. His skin was salty and thick with sweat and he hid his embarrassment with gestures of affection and vague attempts at humour.
I sniffle. ‘That’s two tricks,’ I say. She shifts a little in her seat and crosses her arms in a minor rejection of my stilted humour. And I feel, as I often do with Marie-Louise these days, that I am missing the point.
Heading home at the end of a long shift, a few blocks from my house, a man asks me for a cigarette and when I tell him I don’t smoke, my voice cracked and weary of answering questions, he curses and tells his friend that I need a cock up me. Briefly I am relieved to be the one lacking passion.
Thomas is reading on the couch, bent forward, and the concentration lines in his face look forced, pasted on. I slice cheese at the bench and try to make the sound as scratching and irritating as possible so that he will come and help me make dinner. This is his fifth day of staying with me and there are no signs of his getting better.
‘Why don’t you do some marking or something?’ I suggest. ‘Nothing like other people’s bad ideas to cheer you up.’
He clears his throat. ‘Speaking of bad ideas, I went into that church today.’
The knife skids into my finger and there is a brief pause while I mop up. Thomas puts the bandaid on but my hand’s wet from being rinsed under the tap and the edges keep sliding off.
‘Umm … evangelical types.’
‘Not the Pentecostals?’
‘Did they teach you God’s lesson?’ It is only when he pauses that I allow myself to actually think about it and reel slightly, the shock electric and dizzying.
‘They are quite extraordinary. The people.’
Because I am embarrassed, I respond with an adolescent voyeurism. ‘Did they speak in tongues?’
‘I met a man whose son went missing ten years ago. He was on the bottle, the usual saga. Obsessive.’
‘Well that’s why they join the church.’
‘Sense of community?’
He laughs. ‘You think I’m a lunatic?’
I giggle and it sounds tinny and ludicrous. ‘Borderline.’
Thomas ducks his head. I feel vicious. I am terrified for him. We eat dinner and Thomas pretends to bury himself in the minor dramas of the latest victims of reality television.
I tell Stacy who works with me about Thomas.
She says, ‘Whatever turns you on, I guess.’ Stacy is eighteen, overweight, engaged to a boy in the army reserve.
‘I don’t think getting turned on is part of the package.’
Stacy lowers her voice. ‘D’you think you’re so upset because you’re a …’ She leans in. ‘Y’know. Lesbian.’
We spend the brief respite after the rush hour thinking of all the clichéd synonyms for being turned on and then just clichés of any kind. Whatever floats your boat. Someone’s trash is another man’s treasure. It takes all kinds. If the cap fits. I leave feeling better.
The lights are out when I get home. Thomas is mute on the couch and his movements are blurred and heavy. I carry in the shopping.
‘Do you ever pray?’ he asks.
I put the plastic bags on the table and sit next to him. ‘When I was a kid. Mostly for things. There were a lot of unkept deals with God about a Barbie bus.’
His head lolls forward. ‘You used to be so impressed by me. When we were at uni. Remember?’
I let the pain run through me then, and the fear. Thomas is propelled by desperation. He is feverish with it. He is on a quest to avoid the ruins, the great rush of rubble that lies in the wake of his marriage. I believe he is only tinkering, testing, playing with the shape of this crazy, fringe church and that I should forgive him this dry wrenching search for easy cures. But I am too taxed, too taken with the signs of my own fading grief, too attracted to the decisiveness of rejection and hostility. Perhaps I am offended at his lack of seeing, his willingness to entertain a doctrine that would condemn my salty, uneven, disjointed love for Marie-Louise.
I say, ‘I can’t help you with this God business.’
By the end of summer Marie-Louise has a new girlfriend who can speak four languages. The management changes at work and so does the menu. Everything is drizzled with something or on a bed of something else. We are all getting older. Thomas is back in his old home and we rarely speak. I have heard, many degrees removed, that his brush with the Pentecostals has become a party anecdote, an ironic near-miss that can be reduced to one phrase: the time he almost fell to God. He is writing voraciously about the mysteries and comforts of cultural rituals in everyday life; so clever, so drowned out by false notes.
I harbour my stale loss. Nurture its musty smell.