‘Yeah I know, but I’m sad and drinking helps,’ he said, digging through the rubble on his desk – the unpaid bills, notes to his past self, a birthday card from his grandmother and useless silver coins – as he looked for his keys. ‘Are you coming with me or not?’
‘Yeah,’ she said, as she extracted herself from the couch with a sigh. He was already checking his hair in the bathroom mirror, trying hard to overlook the blemishes on his forehead as he pushed unruly strands behind his ear.
‘Are you done? I need to go before we… go.’
‘Yeah, hang on.’ He straightened the collar on the only decent shirt he owned, spot-checked his teeth and side-stepped out of the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind him. It wasn’t that long ago when they would have gone to the bathroom with one another in the room. He waited dutifully in the kitchen, staring at a dirty tile, contemplating the size of the universe and thinking the tiny dull square of ceramic was part of it.
The local liquor store was a depressing place – red carpet worn so thin in places it would qualify as anorexic. He lolled along between rows and rows of shiny bottles. Having spotted three eight-dollar possibilities, now the hunt was on for the all-elusive seven-dollar option. Experience told him that anywhere with eight-dollar wine would have a seven-dollar choice. He found it: an all-but-unmarked Sauvignon Blanc. The pale blue glass of the bottle filtered the piss-yellow wine to make it a sickly turquoise colour. It reminded him of crockery he’d seen in small town second-hand stores. Still, he found it difficult to argue with the mathematics of 99 cents per standard drink. He paid the due, gathering the bottle and leaving the liquor store with a triumphant swagger.
She was waiting for him outside, smoking a cigarette she held in her slender fingers with the kind of delicate touch usually reserved for an heirloom.
‘Got one of those for me?’ he asked.
‘Why didn’t you buy some when you were in there?’
‘I told you, I’ve quit.’
‘Then why do you want a cigarette.’
‘Because when I say I’ve quit, it means I’ve quit buying them, not smoking them.’
She huffed, dropped her shoulders. He rolled his cigarette and lit up. Inhaling deeply, he barked a cough before setting his eyes sideways to watch her as they walked. ‘Let’s drink this in the park,’ he said, motioning with the bottle.
They lay on their backs, treating the grass like an expansive mattress. From above, their heads looked fused together, separating only when one or the other drank from the bottle’s neck. Their bodies formed two halves of an arrow’s head pointing in an ironic metaphor, he thought, towards the public toilets. ‘Why do you need to travel when you have public parks?’ he said.
‘Because you need to experience and see new things.’
‘But why? Blue sky is enough, and it looks the same from everywhere. And as long as you can see the sky, you don’t need to see new things. Besides, new things are fleeting. How many of them last long enough to be just… things? Not many. Even fewer last to be old things.’
‘Don’t be such a negative prick,’ she said.
‘I’m not,’ he said. ‘You can lie like we are anywhere and see the sky. You don’t need to go somewhere to enjoy that, to see its wonder.’
She didn’t bother responding.
He walked with her to the bus stop and took a seat next to her. The half-functional display board said the bus was X5T minutes away. He swung his legs back and forth beneath the seat like a child trying to keep themself entertained. His toe scraped against the bitumen and scuffed the brown leather of one of his second-hand store brogues. ‘Shit.’
‘I scuffed the toe.’
‘Can you polish it out?’
‘I guess so.’
They returned to silence. He stared at the scuff mark, fuming. She was distracted by the handsome labrador being walked on the opposite side of the street. We both want, he thought, the next X5T minutes to pass as quickly as possible. We want to be alone, to get lost in a movie or found in a book. Or, at least, that’s what he wanted. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back and sighed.
Two hours later, he was still all agitation and a pile of incomplete tasks. Although tempted to blame it on the booze, he knew he would feel the same way if he was sober. The thought of the work he had to do, the pile of menial administrative jobs he should be carrying out, made his chest tighten. He wondered how he might describe his physiological reaction to getting things in his life in order. Was it noble laziness or self-defeat? Certainly if you didn’t try you couldn’t fail. And succeeding didn’t sound as good as it should. He stared at his list of chores he should complete before getting down to work. Granted, there would be a sense of accomplishment in crossing something off. He ran through the items. Send off an apology email to a friend. (Anxiety rose at the thought of letting the person down.) Work on his pet project. (The herb garden was in need of major restoration, the thought immediately snuffing out motivation.) Look for another job. (That would be like inviting failure in and asking it to stay for tea.) Rearrange the bookshelf into categories? Now this was doable.
He stood back and looked at his handy work, taking no small pleasure in the achievement. Previously he had the shelves ordered by colour. While visually pleasing, he told himself, it had become untenable, nothing more than a handsome affectation. The sound of his phone, like gravel thrown at a wall, was vibrating on his desk, shuddering amongst the clutter. His pulse thickening, his face heating – he’d been hoping for so long she’d contact him – he opened and read the, Hello, how are you? What are you up to? He mulled over potential responses getting lost in the thought – a conclusion of sorts – that being able to compose and re-compose texts was definitely a redeeming quality of the medium. It meant he could speak without fluffing words, could hide the fact he was breaking into a sweat. With a text you could strategise. He didn’t particularly enjoy being premeditated, but it was how he functioned.
Too pumped to stay home, he walked through the streets, heading to where he knew his friends were in perpetual party mode. He joined them on the stoop of the old white villa where they lived, its concrete stairs attacked on all sides by overgrown plants, the wind picking up leaves which seemed to circle around them. Discussion rose and fell about who would win in a fight between Pee-wee Herman and Steve from Blue’s Clues. No matter how self-evident the answer was he could barely stay abreast of it. All shimmering hope, he imagined his mind swimming about, his thoughts struggling for breath or pausing to tread water and curse the sky. It was not the first time he’d fallen for a girl, it was just the most recent, which made it the most nerve-wracking. He rose from his spot, reeling a little from the change in orientation.
Inside, at the fridge, he took stock of its contents. People tell you they don’t eat sweet things but the family block of hokey pokey, tucked behind the probiotic yoghurt, said otherwise. He thought about taking a piece, but didn’t want to get caught mid-mouthful and known forever as a fridge ferret. Twisting the top off his beer, he tossed the cap onto the kitchen bench, which is when he heard her voice. Unable to think or decide what to do, he stood listening – her voice seeming to rise above all the others – as she went through the house and into the backyard. Who said timing was everything? Trying to look as nonchalant, he trailed her path to the back door, sidling amongst others who’d sloped in slowly and joined the gathering out there.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘hello.’
‘Hello,’ she replied.
Telling himself there was nowhere else, he parked himself down beside her.
They were as physically close now as they’d ever been and the party was alive with people and noise. Around them looped topics, from cat videos to how many Michael Keatons it takes to make Multiplicity. Words jangled and intertwined, the sun sank and their knees drifted together. Layers of denim melted away, the heat, real or imagined, imposed itself. As far as they were concerned, they were pressing flesh. It was late when they kissed and much later when they stopped – as if everyone had melted away around them, dissolved into the fealty atmosphere of the sky.
He couldn’t remember making the three-kilometre stumble home but was glad he’d done so, the thick, brown curtains in his bedroom defending him from the hot morning sun. He dismissed the blankets, flipped the pillow and lay face down. Already, the scenarios of last night were playing and replaying in his mind.
He woke and staggered to the kitchen where he promptly chipped the rim of his favourite mug as he was rinsing it in the sink. At the sliding glass doors he watched people make their way to work. He picked up his phone, writing and then staring at a draft text, contemplating each letter until his eyes stung. It was innocuous enough, ‘Hey, how’s the head?’ Counting his breaths, he hit send after the fourth exhale, throwing his phone onto his bed. Then, clenching his teeth, he put on his shoes, washed his face, and went out.
Setting up camp in the darkest corner of a cafe, he cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck. When his coffee came he stared at the heart shape in the foam and laughed to himself. He contemplated the experience of time. Was it a series of moments or a continuous flow? Forwards or backwards or everything all at once? He wondered if physicists checked their watches as much as other people and before he knew it his coffee was finished. He reached for this phone and remembered where it was. On the walk home he daydreamed about starting again. He could reinvent himself, be anyone he wanted to be. No-one had to know.
At home he crept to his bedroom door as though someone he did not wish to wake was sleeping on his bed. The phone lay face down, making the task even more terrifying. Before turning it over, he held his hand above it. Timing, he reminded himself, was paramount. His heart sped up. He unlocked the keypad, pressed the top left button and read her reply. He smiled.