Karl had sharpened the knife exactly as I’d asked and he’d also brought home a bottle of Japanese whisky because he knew this was coming. He’d got started on the whisky in the car, out the front. I was drinking myself, watching him through the blinds, trying to decide if I would really do it or not. When he came inside I was sitting on the lounge. I had two clean glasses ready and he sat down beside me, stinking of beer, smoke and vegetable fat plus the cleaning products they use on the grill that take me way back to preschool. He ran his hand back and forth across his beard.
‘I need a shower,’ he said.
‘I’ll be quick. You asked about Celene.’
He put the bottle of whisky on the table between the glasses.
‘I shouldn’t have gone off at you like that,’ he said. ‘I was drunk. I’ve been thinking about it. Actually I don’t think we need to tell each other everything. Some things can be private, you know. We can keep some things to ourselves.’
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘but I’ve been thinking, too. Maybe some things we can keep to ourselves but I don’t know. I mean I think you were right. I think if we’re going to do this there are a couple of things. One big thing. I mean I don’t want anything this big between us, anything to disturb us as we’re going along.’
I picked up the bottle and poured the whisky out. When I gave him his glass I saw his fingers, square and brown with smooth, neat, white nails, and I had the firm idea I could still back out now but I knew I wasn’t going to do it.
‘She showed up at the café,’ I said, ‘you know Lucini’s, on the beach. She had these ugly brown sandals on and I saw those first, I don’t know why I was looking at her feet but I remember this very clear, I was looking down. I suppose I’d never seen anything like them, or anything like her. She had this gold hair in these waves to her waist, and that was also new to me. Back then I had long hair too but I always wore it pulled tight, pulled back. I always used a lot of bobby pins. I don’t know, something came over. I was young and I didn’t know any better. I think I was nineteen.’
I took a drink and that settled me. I was sitting way forward, leaning over my glass, looking down into it; the gold yellow soothed me.
‘We worked together,’ I said. ‘We ran orders and made cocktails at big functions and we got these massive tips and when it was quiet we talked together, sitting on the ledge outside, by the peace lilies. We smoked. I’d never had a friend like that, someone to talk to who just got me and I got her. I’d always wanted a friend and then Celene came along.’
Karl’s phone went off and he pulled it out of his pocket.
‘This is the café I was saying, the one that got taken out in the storm last week. Remember on the news? The waves came all the way up to the windows and smashed them all in and then took the tables and the chairs out, bobbing along out to sea. Did you see that, when we were at Cat and Pete’s? Perhaps that’s why this has come up now.’
But that was a lie. I never needed any reason to think of her.
‘When was this?’ Karl said. ‘Was this all before me?’
‘Oh yes,’ I said, taking a drink. ‘Yeah, this was eight, nine years ago now. I was nineteen or something like that.’
He worked his thumb over his phone then looked up, looked at me. His eyes were the colour of cinnamon on snow and they looked at me with total kindness, my kind, honest man.
‘Just Dad,’ he said. ‘About the races tomorrow. What time you want to go?’
‘I’ve got swimming at nine, maybe after eleven or ten.’
‘I’ll say twelve. We can go to the markets and get some flowers for your mum.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m not going this week. She’s really the last person I want to see, at the minute.’
He slipped the phone back in his pocket. It went off right away but he didn’t take it out this time.
‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘we worked together for one summer, that was all. The whole time was a blur, I was really bad back then. She was from Ontario, where she’d met her boyfriend, Ed. He grew up near me, went to my school. He was just a few years ahead.’
‘Do we have any ice?’ Karl said. He sat forward and topped up his glass.
‘Just the pineapples,’ I said.
Karl went into the kitchen and I could hear him popping them out of the stupid yellow silicone tray into the bowl we used for the cat who liked to sleep on the hot water tank outside our kitchen window, or else, when it rained, squish herself up between the window bars and the glass. The cat looked through the bars like it was our fault she was there when the front door was always open; she could have come in anytime.
‘I really hate these pineapples,’ Karl said.
‘I know,’ I said.
He used his fingers to put two pineapples in my drink. His hands were always so clean because he wore gloves at work – he was one of these men who doesn’t do anything special to keep his hands neat but the nails stay perfect and square and the skin stays so smooth.
‘God, Ed,’ I said, ‘now he was a good guy. He was super rich but he was just a nice guy, really huge and soft, I think he had a little bit of a low self-esteem, she was really good for him, but she was mean. Sometimes she would say something to cut him right down. But he did everything for her. One night at her place he cooked us pancake sausages. I’d never had those before. They were Celene’s idea. That was the first night I actually tried weed. I didn’t think it was doing anything but then I got telling this story to her and all the while I was telling it we were laughing and laughing and holding hands under the table. I squeezed her hand hard, now and then.’
‘Wasn’t the boyfriend there?’
‘Under the table,’ I said. ‘That’s where we were holding hands. We were all drinking and smoking weed. Maybe he saw but he didn’t say anything.’
Karl slid his hand into his front pocket and pulled out his pouch of tobacco and the bag of papers.
‘I hate guys like that,’ he said. ‘They’re the worst.’
‘You know they think it’s really hot. Like girls on girls.’
‘We weren’t having sex, Karl,’ I said. ‘We were holding hands. Plus I don’t think he saw.’
‘Well it’s cheating, isn’t it? That kind of thing.’
He sprinkled the tobacco into the middle of the paper.
‘We were drunk,’ I said. ‘We didn’t know what we were doing. Well I didn’t know. Most of that summer I was drunk. We drank whatever we could get our hands on while we worked. There was a lot of stuff around. There was a lot of wine left behind from the functions and parties and anyway there was a whole bar full and the boss didn’t care. He didn’t notice or he didn’t care.’
Karl licked the cigarette closed and rolled it back and forth on his knee.
‘I really stink,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry about it, okay? I know some stuff’s there, but it’s all in the past. We all have stuff, you know. I was being silly. I was so smashed last night, I get like my dad. I’m sorry.’ He lit the cigarette and threw the lighter on the table. It bounced twice and then fell on the floor.
‘Just hear this out,’ I said. ‘I’ve been thinking about it. And I think I have to say. Just have your drink and your smoke and then you can have a nice long shower and I’ll get us something for tea.’
Even as I said it, I knew it was the end. But I wasn’t anywhere close to stopping now.
‘She smoked a lot of weed that summer and that always took her down. She got quiet and wasn’t so friendly. God, she could smoke. One time she never turned up for her shift because she was smoking, and clean forgot. I was so heartbroken I drank a whole bottle of chardonnay that day in a milkshake tin with a straw and then I closed up early and walked out and over the dunes, wild drunk. I was so bad that summer. I did a lot of crazy stuff. I fell asleep that day on the dunes and woke up totally burnt. And it was weird because when I woke up I realised I’d gone out there to bring things to an end and I was surprised, when I woke up.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There wasn’t any plan,’ I said. ‘That’s what made it weird. I just expected everything would finish up there.’
‘I could go for some Thai,’ he said, taking a good drag. ‘Green prawns.’
‘I’ll run you a bath,’ I said, ‘then I’ll call up and we’ll get it brought here. I’m pretty tired. Did you do the knife?’
I took another drink and set the glass down and the fireplace swung in front of me as I stood up. The knife was in the special pouch he put our knives in when he took them to work to clean them up. He was so particular like that, about protecting the knives, or protecting people from the knives, and I got this terrible sense of what I was doing.
‘What do you want it for anyway,’ he said. ‘Not sushi again. I might die.’
I set it down on the coffee table and took out my phone, laying it next to the knife. Then I went back and got the cactus in the terracotta pot off the mantelpiece we sometimes used for an ashtray and put that on the table, too. Karl blew smoke at the ceiling.
‘Now I’m going to say this straight,’ I said. ‘She would smoke and drink and play the guitar and whenever I could I held her hand. I felt bad about it but I couldn’t stop myself. She drew me closer by telling me things. I didn’t ask for it. She told me about the stuff Ed made her do, she didn’t like it. I promised her I’d never do that to her. She also started this whole touching thing, which I didn’t ask for. I didn’t have any idea about that, I just knew when I was drunk I wanted to hold her hand, but she’d come up behind me behind the counter at work and put her hands under my shirt. She’d stand there with her hands pressed into my belly, hot breath at the back of my neck. Once she texted me I love you. I love you, with an exclamation mark, and I was happy like I’d never been happy before. It was new. She was the first person to ever say there was something seriously wrong with me. She’d say these things and I’d get all worked up. That was love. She was much smarter than me at something but I didn’t know what. Anyway they married and moved to Ontario. I gave her a ring to say goodbye and she gave me her favourite stone. It was flat and I broke it in two and then threw it in the bin.’
Karl put his hand on my lower back.
‘So that’s it,’ he said. ‘All right. You were in love with this girl, I understand. I think it’s a nice story, apart from the end. But I’m glad.’
He leaned right forward and kissed me, lightly, on the cheek.
‘I never heard from her,’ I said. ‘Then one day I got an email. They were coming back, bringing the baby to meet his parents. I met her in the middle of Hyde Park and she kissed me for a long time right there in the park. There was a strong wind up. The baby was asleep in the pram. A tiny piece of her hair was in my mouth all that time. It was my first real kiss. That’s what I think.’
I was sitting there looking at the empty fireplace with his square fingers going back and forth across my lower back.
‘She came back now and then,’ I said, ‘that was the whole thing. They lived in Canada but they bought a property in Potts Point overlooking the Harbour, one of those fancy places where all the tiles heat up and you can see who’s at the door on your phone. The thing is it would go months and months and I wouldn’t hear a thing and then suddenly I’d get a cute picture of one of her kids in a swimsuit or a school uniform or holding a cat. That’s how she worked it, and sooner or later she’d be recalling some thing, some time we had together, like the first swim we ever had, the time she said we’re getting closer. That’s what she said late this one night. We’d been swimming at the beach in the dark and we were saying goodbye at her place. She had her arms around me and she put her face close to mine. We’re getting closer, she said. We’re getting close.’
I picked up my phone and turned it over in my hands.
‘I never knew before her what a body could be. My god. She showed me how it could go, from the start. She showed me how you could take off your clothes. I didn’t know about that before I met her. Like with you. I didn’t know how there was such a thing as skin on skin. In the water that night, the black water… her skin had this light on it, to do with the moon. I don’t know. Something split apart, inside. I saw things I’d never seen. I swear to God.’
I picked up the knife with my right hand and opened my left.
‘I’ve done a lot of things over the years,’ I said. ‘I’ve changed my email and all the rest and I’ve thought about changing my telephone number. The phone is the thing: she can always reach me. I’m always open with this phone on, so Celene can get in.’
My left palm was open, and my right fingers were curled around the knife. The blade was so fresh just looking at it made me think of the lovely grey stone Karl had used to sharpen it.
‘But one time my phone got locked,’ I said. ‘It was that way for two days. I couldn’t receive any calls or any messages and I couldn’t send them. It was the clearest I’ve ever been. So I’ve been having a picture, I’ll tell you this, of stabbing my phone with this knife.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
I tapped the blade of the knife against the heel of my hand.
‘Give me the knife,’ Karl said. ‘What are you doing?’
‘There’s not much else to say,’ I said.
I picked up my glass and moved over to the window. I stood up there to tell him, close to the blinds.
‘There was this one day, she called me. She was back, for three days. I turned up at her place. It had been a long time and I turned up to tell her I was finished with the whole thing, she couldn’t call me anymore. I was happy now and the whole thing was over and anyway it hadn’t ever been anything and it hadn’t been good. So I turned up to her place in the middle of the day. At Potts Point. I was going to tell her. She had a lot of cheese and meat laid out. There was so much cold meat it made me feel sick. It was autumn. There was also a bowl of apricots. Or it might have been the sun.’
Karl sat forward and pushed the cigarette into the dry cactus dirt. ‘When was this?’
‘We got into bed right away,’ I said. ‘She kept on her t-shirt and I put the palms of my hands onto her broad, brown, warm back. Her spine stood out and her ribs were so hot. She took my left hand and put it over one breast. I wrapped my legs around her and I held her that way. I kept my hands pressing into her back because I couldn’t believe it was happening and I didn’t know that’s what I’d wanted, all along. I had my mouth stuck to her neck while she moved inside of me. I reached inside of her. I’ll tell you, I reached. And our tongues stalled together, teeth on teeth, that’s how it finished. With our bellies pressed together and teeth on teeth. We pulled away at exactly the same time. It was weird.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘And then I got out of bed and put on my bra. I said Celene. I said Celene I think this is it. I said I really, really, really love Karl. And she knew that it was. And I knew. And I faced her in front of the wardrobe. Our clothes were on the floor. She had on her t-shirt and I had on my bra and I took my bra off. I put it on the floor. I got down on my knees and I’ve never done anything as good as I’ve done that. It was something. After that I climbed on top of her, and we stayed there like that, on the carpet, locked. Her legs were tight around me and my face was in her hair. We said goodbye as friends might do.’
I finished my drink and put the glass on the mantelpiece. There was a sprinkling of dirt there from where the pot plant had been and some incense dust. The cold came creeping in, starting with the palms of my hands.
‘So I’m going to show you,’ I said. ‘I’m going to show you how sorry. Because I really want to marry you, I really do, but I think there is this big way that I’ve fucked the whole thing up. I think I may keep fucking it up. God I loved her Karl. I really love her. But I didn’t mean it.’
I had this idea to pull the tip of the blade from my elbow to wrist, deeply, for the blood to spill out, for me to fall to the floor. I wanted to fall and lie there for good. I thought maybe Karl would cry out, maybe he’d pick me up with his clean hands, maybe he’d call an ambulance, I thought, and sit in the back with me and touch my eyebrows with the tips of his fingers, my hair. I thought he could rescue me like that from the whole fucking thing.
But Karl was sitting forward now, over his empty glass. He picked up the bottle and poured more whisky in. He screwed the lid back on the bottle, completely.
‘Are you even listening?’ I said. ‘Did you even hear what I said?’
He picked up his drink and took it all down. He turned the empty glass back and forth on the coffee table, getting ready.
‘I was listening,’ he said. ‘Yes, I heard what you said.’
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