We stop at a motel off the shoulder of the highway. I’ve only got doubles left, says the woman behind the counter, are you right to share? We nod and she hands us the key and warns us about the water pressure in the shower.
After we’ve unpacked she goes to smoke on the balcony while I buy Fantas from the vending machine downstairs. The cans are coated in a layer of dust and I wipe them off with my singlet. She still has a sneezing fit when she tries to drink.
The lights from the next town are strung out on the horizon and everywhere else is black. Every now and then the high beams of a truck picks out the sign by the side of the road. I want to say something about the stars being clearer out here, but instead I hold my can against my forehead and suck in the doughy air.
It’s going to be weird seeing him, she says, and I reach for her hand across the table. You’re going to ask if I want to talk about it, she says. I squeeze and re-squeeze her palm and consider saying, I’m here for you.
I wish you’d stop looking at me like that, she says. Like you want to devour me. She stubs out her cigarette and goes inside to take a shower.
I stand in the doorway and watch her strip, toss her clothes to the cardinal points of the room. Perv, she says, catching my eye. I wonder whether this is a moment I should be seizing. I know that I should be being decisive, that I should do what she would do if she were me, so I shuck my skirt off and follow her into the shower, press my face hard into hers.
Woah there, cowgirl, she says, as our teeth jangle together. The cubicle is small, and her hand is pressing down on my head. I don’t know whether she is being passionate, or she just has nowhere else to put her arm, but I get on my knees. She sighs, and keeps adjusting her position, but I keep going even though the back of my head is hitting the taps, telling myself that we will remember this as the moment when everything changed, though we won’t say it like that. After a while she gets out and starts drying off, and I stay there on my knees, like some kind of horny penitent, my ankle throbbing from an old hockey injury.
I remember a few months back when he invited her to visit him out at his parents’ farm. We were on a bench across the road from the tram stop, next to the phallic piece of public art the council put in – she would say erected – at the start of summer.
Pumps in hand, a woman was running down High St, trying to attract the attention of the conductor. She got close enough to bang her briefcase against the carriage before it pulled away. She leaned over and put her hands on her knees, with an expression of almost cellular disappointment. That was a good one, I said, digging my elbow into her ribs, but she was too busy with her phone to notice.
She took me to this spot when we first started going out, halfway through last year. We would arrive during peak hour to watch people miss their trams. Sometimes we’d bring coffee and newspapers and sit there all morning, making up stories about the commuters. Stories that made us feel good to be us, to not be them. She always said that people never looked more alive than in those few moments when they knew they weren’t going to make it. I called it our little morning ritual, though she didn’t like it when I said that.
You don’t have to come you know, she said, blowing into her coffee cup. He’s just somebody I knew from uni. We weren’t even that good friends.
She hardly ever talks about this period in her life, but I’ve managed to glean a few details. I know that she finished an Arts degree but dropped out of Psych, that at one time she wanted to be a writer, that there’s a draft of a novel – she called it a long thing – sitting in a shoebox in her wardrobe. I extracted a promise to let me read it on my next birthday, but I know it will probably never happen.
When was the last time you saw him? I asked.
I don’t know, forever ago. He used to have this hideous goatee. She crushed the coffee cup under the heel of her Doc. But I’m sure the chemo’s taken care of that.
I’m not coming to say goodbye to him, I said. I’m coming for you. I fished my car keys from my satchel and bobbed them up and down. And besides, who’s going to drive you all the way out there?
She’s twenty-eight and she still doesn’t have her license, and this was a cue for her to call me her sugar-mama or her chaufferess with the mostest, or one of the other things she used to call me whenever I gave her a lift, but all she said was , You really don’t have to come.
I know, I know, I should look sicker, he says. He opens the door in chinos and a ‘Fuck Abbott’ T-shirt, with his paper hospital gown on backwards like a cape, like something a kid would wear. But I can assure you, he says, I’m as terminal as they come. He fiddles with his fringe so we can see the scar from where they cut out the first tumour.
They hug and she points at me and says, My better, beige-er half. I smile as wide as I can, to show that I’m in on the joke.
Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way, he says, leading us into the living room. I was given three months to live six months ago. Just dump your stuff anywhere. The latest tumour’s not growing, but it’s not getting any smaller. Besides the odd killer migraine, I’m not in a great deal of pain. The docs say that a positive attitude can do wonders for my quality of life. He puts the last part of the sentence in scare quotes.
Through the bay windows the lawn slopes down into the gently rippling wheat fields. It’s beautiful, I say.
Gracias, he says. Before I got sick, I hadn’t been back to the family manor for years. You can take the boy out of the country etc. etc. To be honest I never thought I’d live here again, let alone die here. But after my housemates sublet my room, it was either here or the hospice.
For a moment his smile wavers and I want to say something like, Go on, or, Let it all out, but he just turns to her and grins and asks, How’s your quality of life?
She pretends to lean into a microphone, like she’s a politician at a press conference and says, No comment. She pulls a bottle of tequila and a bag of weed from her rucksack, and they disappear to the kitchen to get limes and shot glasses and bowls of salt.
I stand by the window and watch an older man who must be his father on a ride-on mower, tracing mazy circles across the lawn.
When she told me about the trip, I was envisioning a bed bound pre-corpse, so juiced up with painkillers that he didn’t even know we were there. I didn’t think he was going to want to party. I try to stop myself wishing that he was a little more frail. I imagine driving her home and her leaning her head against my shoulder and saying those things that people say when they’ve been close to death like, It makes you really appreciate what you’ve got. Or, We’ve just can’t take each other for granted anymore.
They return after twenty minutes. We get stoned and we get drunk and they talk about people who I’ve never met, about how they never liked them. They talk about bands that have broken up and pubs that have shut down. Some stories are just gaps which they don’t fill in, stories that finish with one of them saying to me, I guess you had to be there. If they talk about the tumour, it’s only to make a joke. Of course, I’m on lime duty.
In the dark, the wheat fields look like the sea. I’m yawning pointedly at her, but she’s ignoring me. She throws a lime rind at the couch where he’s slumped over, looking, for once, sick. A rind hits him and he sits up.
We thought we’d lost you. She says, getting up and handing him another shot. My better, beig-er half is angling for bed, she says, Aren’t you baby? I shrug and pretend to grin and take another shot.
So how long has all this been going on? He swings his arm from her to me.
At the same time I say, Six months, and she says, Not long.
Helluva kisser, ain’t she? He says to me in an American accent. She mock kicks him in the shin and then bursts out laughing, and then he starts laughing too. You didn’t tell her? He says, and then turns to me. Not that there’s that much to tell.
Were you two an item? I say, trying to sound cool and pneumatic. They both splutter at the word item. She comes over to my chair and sits on my lap.
No comment. She says, hugging me tight, her EpiPen digging into my chest.
I’m allergic to everything, she told me the night we met, drunk kissing in the alley behind the Vic. My hand was up her singlet, trying to trace circles across her belly. My finger kept catching on her navel ring, so I moved my hand up a little further and felt the EpiPen sticking out of her bra. It’s in case my heart breaks, she said, taking it out and pretending to stab herself in the chest. You should remember that, she pointed the pen in my direction, My heart is unbreakable.
We met because she had accidentally locked her bike to mine. I had been waiting outside the pub for twenty minutes when she wandered out for a smoke and saw me trying to guess her lock’s combination. Shit, I’m so sorry, she jogged over and undid it. 0-0-0-0, she said. For next time.
I remember deciding whether to be exasperated or to be cold, or to ride away without saying anything. I remember deciding to laugh. Don’t be so amiable, she said, touching my arm. At least let me buy you a drink. I remember letting her lead me inside, barely worrying about the frozen peas in my shopping bag.
She fished out the star anise from the jug of mulled wine, and started talking. She told me about her diabetic Irish setter, and the way she felt the first time she read a certain writer whose name I can’t recall. She told me about her dad, the online poker addict, and the call centre where she asked strangers questions about food and sex and money. I wasn’t really listening, just watching the way she held her glass, and all the time thinking that I was too boring for her, that she was probably just being nice talking to me for so long. I remember when she said, I know more about the people I speak to on the phone than the people I sleep with. I like to keep them a mystery. Then she put her hand on my thigh. Don’t tell me anything about you.
We were too drunk to ride, so we got a cab. Halfway back to her place we pulled over so I could vomit in the gutter. Back then my head was shaved, but she tried to hold onto the knuckle-length stubble, as if she was keeping it from falling into my face. When I was done she wiped my mouth with the back of her arm, kissed me so deep I started to gag. We’re in this together, she grinned, and took me inside.
I hear him vomiting in his bedroom at the end of the hall. She doesn’t notice me getting out of bed, padding to the doorway. His room’s dark except for a nightlight beside the bed. He’s on all fours in front of a plastic bucket, naked under the hospital gown. I stand behind him, so close that I can see the white hairs glimmering on the backs of his thighs.
It’s you, he says without turning around. Then he says her name and his hand scrabbles behind him on the carpet until it reaches my foot, loops around my bad ankle. Through the fug of weed I realise his mistake and I’m about to correct him, but instead, trying to sound like her, I say, Are you ready for your sponge bath? He laughs and then starts vomiting again and I can smell the tequila in the bucket.
God, this is so weird isn’t it? He says, sitting up. Us being here, like this. Do you remember when we used to sit across from that intersection near uni and watch people miss their trams, do you remember how angry they got?
Like it was yesterday, I whisper. He rocks back onto his heels then sits down, with his back really straight, like he’s listening for something. Will you grant a dying man his wish, he says, taking my hand. He’s looking off into the middle-distance and I can see him thickening through the gown. Just once, he says, For old time’s sake.
As I’m doing it I feel seventeen again, drunk on a beanbag in a friend’s living room, feeling thick knuckles wrestling with the top button of my jeans, thinking, Is this it? After a couple of minutes he exhales and says, I’m ready for that bath, before offering me the hem of his gown to wipe my hands with. I help him to his feet and guide him to the bed. I never thought that you’d end up with somebody like her. He says, as I lever him into bed. I never thought that you’d end up with anybody.
She left me a voicemail the day she found out about his tumour, around six months ago. I listened to the message in the office bathroom, sitting in the stall with the ‘Out Of Order’ sign on the door, cross-legged so nobody could see my feet under the partition.
On the tram to her house I listened to the voicemail again, telling myself not to get too excited. We had been hooking up for a couple of months and I still hadn’t asked her whether she was seeing anybody else because I didn’t want to hear the answer. I remember feeling excited because it was me she was calling about her tragic news. I was listening so intently that I didn’t notice the ticket inspectors getting on. For some reason I couldn’t stop grinning as they wrote out the fine. I even think that I might have said something like, It’s a small price to pay for love, or maybe I didn’t, but that’s what I think that I told her I said, much later on.
She looked a little surprised when I walked through the front gate, but she gave me a watery smile, a filter sticking out of the corner of her mouth. I took the smile to mean, Hey, I’m really happy to see you. Or maybe, Fuck this day. Or maybe both.
She was on a couch on the front porch, trying to roll a cigarette, pinning her phone to her shoulder with the side of her head. Her eyes were all puffed up, like she’d just eaten shellfish or peanuts or dust.
Back then I didn’t know how she took her tea, so I made it white with one, and I took it out to the porch and placed it at her feet. She was still on the phone, so I went into her bedroom, first door on the left. I resisted the urge to go through her things, so I just lay on her bed and tried to smell her scent on her pillows. I could hear her talking on the phone.
She said, Inoperable. She said, The size of a squash ball. She said, I don’t know how big a squash ball is; I’ve never played squash.
There was a pause while her friend spoke on the other end of the line, and I could hear her settling on the chair. And her friend must have been saying something like, I still can’t actually believe it, it feels so unreal. Like a dream. Or maybe she wasn’t saying anything.
I remember going back out there and she was cycling through photos on her phone and she looked up at me and said, Thanks for coming, with this really big smile which I now know is the smile she uses for people at work and her Dad, the smile which isn’t a part of her. I remember that she hadn’t touched her tea.
Read the other stories in 218.5: Autumn fiction: