She is making a list of the things Leo doesn’t believe in. The past, for one thing; the future, for another. Shoes. Domesticated animals. Fathers. Cars (his kombi doesn’t count). Prisons. Christmas (Easter also, and especially Valentine’s Day). Capital letters (he signs his name with a little “l,” considers it egotistical to do otherwise, though she stubbornly insists on capitalising him). One bright morning, Leo watches her bludgeon a queen wasp with a dictionary. The wasp oozes and writhes and refuses to die; she dances around waving the dictionary, making short high-pitched horror noises, psyching herself up to have another go. Leo gets up from the table, takes the book from her hands, and deals the wasp a death blow. He will hold this against her, she knows, because he doesn’t believe in killing things. She is making a list of all the things Leo doesn’t believe in, because this is an impermanent arrangement (Leo doesn’t believe in permanence), and she wants to remember him through a bright kaleidoscope of disbelief.
A summer arm slung over the side of a boat, insect-fingers skimming the surface of the estuary, sending sparks of water into the air.
A cocoon boat – let’s call it Chrysalis!
Cute, Leo says. He doesn’t believe in naming inanimate objects. This could be a life-boat, the repository of impossible optimism, the last resort. The rudder fails to communicate with the curved wood that cocoons our collected limbs in this delicate phase of our development (the usual confusion of beginnings and endings: simultaneously sinking and starting out). It’s not really big enough for the two of us, we’re inevitably entangled.
Taking the optimist out on the inlet, lying prone in the parentheses of our boat-shaped frame, silently plotting points in the ever-expanding blue, but still there are limits, and on the light-skin of this stillness birds and insects flit, pulling brown stitches, unmending the surface of the sea.
She wants to steal this setting, the internal courtyard and the dusk and the painfully purple flowers; increasingly, there are colours from which she can’t recover.
Almost every place in town has a sea view, but they have chosen somewhere finite, a square of paving stones and a square of sky. Leo rolls a cigarette and lights it, wilfully oblivious to the moral horror that smoking provokes these days. In the opposite corner of the courtyard sit a couple who might once have been British. Their faded accents and permanently darkened skins identify them as belonging to the race of the perpetual traveller. The woman has a soggy sunset-coloured bougainvillea petal stuck to her back and she leans deep into conversation.
Can they be soft and subtle and still certain? Leo has shaved his head to cope with the summer heat. He looks like a movie star playing an escaped convict. They order a calamari salad to share, neither of them actually hungry, but they need something to chew on. There was an afternoon shower and the courtyard smells of wet citrus. His lips make a soft popping sound with each inhalation of his cigarette. The girl who delivers the salad is young and awkward, her hair falls over her face as she says, Um, you’re not really supposed to smoke in the courtyard. You can smoke out the front.
Leo gestures skyward with his cigarette, indicating the degree of natural ventilation, and grins. The girls shrugs; her smile like her tee shirt is a bit tight but she goes back inside. From the kitchen windows come cooking smells and cursing, the tables filling up.
The thing is, he tells her. Leo likes to take her by both hands and look her in the eye and tell her how it is, how she is, specifically. The thing is, you don’t have any baggage. Most people have baggage. She does feel alarmingly light these days (though when she wakes in the morning her jaw is clenched and her fingers curled into fists). She picks a piece of calamari out of the salad – suitably rubbery, it should last the course of the conversation. It’s not that you’re not sympathetic to other people’s shitty childhoods etcetera, he continues. You can be sympathetic to a fault. It’s just that you’re so used to things being easy. It makes you, I don’t know…
Shallow? she suggests. She sees the golden musculature of the estuary fill with warm tongues of water on an afternoon tide; she’s wading in the shallows on stilt legs, head tilted back into impossible blue. Struck still. The vague hum of a car crossing the causeway. It could be him, coming home. She feels perfect even as she offers the pejorative adjective, genuinely trying to save him the trouble.
Leo drops his cigarette and it hisses in the puddle at his feet. I wouldn’t have said shallow, he frowns. She feels so wide-open she appears unhinged. Glib? he wonders aloud.
Good word, she agrees. It’s like key-hole surgery, trying to find a word apt enough to cut to the heart of the matter without inflaming the surrounding tissue, without implicating other organs. No baggage. Let’s talk about something else, she suggests. How is the café coming on? Have you heard from the council yet? He has acquired an old fishing boat, no longer fit for the open sea, and moored it in the mouth of the estuary. He plans to operate it as a café in the tourist season.
Good. I’ve got the guys lined up to strip it back and paint it so if the council comes through it should be operational by Christmas. I’ll give you a job making coffee.
No thanks, I have my savings to get by on. And anyway I might be glibly gone by then.
Cast in the thin and shifting shade of the clothesline because the coastal vegetation is too low and tangled to stay cool beneath. The pegs are failing to hold the sky in place, but they provide co-ordinates, an abacus for counting space. They are also, apparently, a measure of my mental health: when the pegs are colour-coordinated with the clothes, Leo says, he knows he needs to keep an eye on me. Today I’ve dabbed the colours carelessly (so it seems to Leo) across the line, and the sky is slipping through my bright plastic fingers (so it seems to me). Sewing a seam to Leo, mending myself, metaphorically.
At the end of summer she will shave her head. She takes a fistful of hair and holds it up to the afternoon light, contemplating her divergent purposes, counting her split ends. She sits at the desk in the old beach house and looks at the sea, which is certain. Deadpan. Giving nothing away. She always has to add something more, such excess. She can’t help but pile things up. Her bed floats in the middle of the room, clothes and sheets spread from it in rings and ripples. There is nothing to requite. Not quite. Yet. Still. These words are not stones like so many but sentiments condensing on the roof of her mouth: boiled sweets to suck on, pensively. She sits at a mahogany desk as dark as her hair, old and valuable and very heavy, too heavy for this floor, the worn boards bow and splinter beneath its weight. This is a desk for serious contemplation and she is doing her best to comply. She has her laptop open and she is ready to write this love story, to take control of the terms, make something happen. Nick Cave said he’d never trust a woman who writes love letters, and perhaps this is wise. But she’s not writing to Nick Cave. She has her hands flat on the desk top, fingers spread, as if to channel the desk’s conviction in the deep and transformative power of thought. But she can’t hold her breath long enough to get beneath the skin of things. Sighs, drums her fingers on the surface. Supposes she is waiting, when she promised Leo she wouldn’t.
He’s gone down the coast (up and down are the only directions when you are wedged between mountains and sea) and she is not-waiting like the lover she isn’t while the waves hardly bother to wash in and out. Her breath links one moment loosely to the next because nothing else will, cheek on the sun-warmed mahogany mouth slipping open soundless dream words drifting to the corners of the room riding multicoloured drafts throughout the house. Not even alone. Never even alone. The inequality of objects doesn’t disqualify them from tenderness, it makes devotion possible. The desk weighing too heavy on the floor, her sea sponge head lying too lightly on the desk. In her dream she is parting branches, peering out from the thick foliage of the heart, failing to finish her sentences, drifting off in her bed boat and she can’t even grow flowers in all this salt and sand and stripping back. Legs crumpled beneath her like a foal’s. It is currently half tide and everything approaches. She is so cushioned by images that she can hardly feel the thing, barely even detect it; she’s put the pea of love beneath a hundred over-stuffed mattresses of metaphor, to prove her sensibilities, to make herself precious.
Leo sleeps on an old grey blanket on bare boards but that’s his business.
His guitar in the corner of the main room is mute, sullen with cobwebs and dust, the strings sag. It’s been that long. The stringy little liar has stopped singing (still hums though), drift-net metaphors have long since exhausted all the easy catch in the bay, been forced into darker waters (fishing boats are being turned into cafés). The old guilt dog has lost its teeth, at least, a nuisance but no more than that, slobbering her ankles as she walks along the beach.
This skinny story is nil by mouth, awaiting an operation. This story is fasting, in pursuit of purity. This story’s days are numbered. For example, Day 58: Leo makes a sweat lodge in his spare time.
Side by side, sweating out the secrets lying just beneath the surface, achieving an oily sheen which repels intimacy, encourages affection to bead and run right off. We are firm and shiny like action figures. Without your secrets you are undistinguished, indistinguishable from all the others, the befores and the afters. They are strung around your neck like diamonds, those elegant elisions. You wear them openly, the slits, the missing bits. Sooner or later the body gives us away.
I never said glib, Leo interjects, must’ve been someone else. He rubs the sweat around his face with the flats of his hands then begins massaging his scalp. I wish he wouldn’t, I can’t stand the smell of scalp, in this enclosed space, or the word of it. We are sitting here in this makeshift sweat lodge like pickled herrings in our own brine. Hardly bothering to articulate, letting words leach out in the slippery half-dark.
I don’t want to have this conversation with you, it feels cheap.
Saying anything cheapens something, Leo replies. There’s no way around it.
Picture this: another thousand words. Tap dancing, imposing artificial rhythms. Children collecting small grey stones, common stones, the kind you find along the road to school and stow in your corduroy pockets for retaliation in a raw playground moment. Like. What. So. Why. Dull body blows, thrown with resignation.
Peering through the rustling undergrowth, padding nakedly to the sweat lodge in the clearing, a small yurt-like structure. Confess confess confess but she can’t think what. Leo is a veteran of sweat lodges. Sweating is one of the things he does. Along with a large amount of silent meditation. It’s what gives him his edge, and his edge is what makes him both the easiest and the most impossible person imaginable.
So much hysteria. He says to her. So much hyperbole.
The sweat lodge scene, absolutely essential. Every love story must have one. Take two characters, put them in a confined and overheated space with or without a white elephant and wait for them to melt together like coloured marbles. Going too far and then going further, until we all fall down and the earth extracts the confessions that the sea couldn’t. All the colours you become once you learn to decipher the dark. Throwing dull little words against your window until I break the glass. Apparently, it’s a question of Compatibility, capital C. Leo says so. Leo says just leave it, will you. But it’s her house, so it’s him who’ll do the leaving. And they’ll both stay but the house is leaving anyway. One day they’ll wake up in one bed or two on a great empty beach, emotional infrastructure finally stripped away. Coastal erosion. It’s what they’re waiting for.
Sucked through a hole in the story and shelled like a pea. She has been. Someone tore a hole in her tall tale and now she’s rolling up her jeans for an estuary crossing, because she has mistimed the tide. They were dancing together in the silky green twilight of a Bill Hammond painting, but she has given up trying to tell Leo her dreams, he glazes over. She ends up breakfasting on her own metaphors, devouring the evidence.
She drops Leo’s name again and scours the length of the beach looking for it. He claims not to remember hers, on the rare occasion that he is called upon to introduce her.
A fish, fondled and withering, like a child he carried it in his palm down the beach, hand thrust out in front of him. A perfect little herring, she remembers, it was dead by the time he got it home.
A grafted heart outgrowing its window box, sprouting heavy blood-coloured blooms.
And Leo? Leo? Three little letters, polished stones in her pockets, protective charms. She’ll go somewhere dry. Inland. The end of all this nonsense. She will return to the desert wreckers yard where nothing grows where she was happy for a time blinking the grit from her eyes, rolling up her sleeves as she now rolls up her jeans. Ah but she is failing to advance the story. If she goes back then she is failing to advance the story and without the story how will love know where to find her? So she’ll sweat silken threads of story with which to bind his hands, instead.
Counting coherence on one hand. Extending the dead herring of meaning in a sandy palm: look what I found! Can I help but write against you, write gently against you until I break the skin, write against you until you give up, until you are erased. Write against you in anger etcetera, write straight to you with my feather fingers, write out to you with my paddle hands when the tide is full, write you out as I out-write the auto-correct?
She wakes every morning with a mouth full of cobwebs, first words emerge sticky and stunned. She wakes coughing on lumps of dream life lodged in her cavities. That’s okay because Leo, a self-proclaimed morning person, doesn’t believe in speaking before 9am. Nor after 9pm. Leo doesn’t believe in speaking unless you’ve got something to say. Every evening before bed he prepares Bircher muesli to soak for their breakfast. This morning she finds a spider in her muesli, it has crawled in under cover of darkness and drowned in the juices. She fishes it out: it has a couple of legs missing which presumably she’ll eat. It would be easy to mistake this breakfast-making for love. She finds a six-legged spider in her cereal and slaps herself for having love thoughts so early in the morning. Slumps a little lower in the seat: she’s really losing her edge. There goes Leo, dragging the dinghy around the corner of the house, smiling in easy anticipation of being on the water. Another perfect morning, she supposes. Every day is limitless possibility. But he is here, and she is here, and surely that’s a limited proposition.