Sport 16: Autumn 1996
Sara Knox — Love Scenes
I have a memory of my father, his body twice as long as mine, supine on the just-watered lawn of our first home in the Hutt, grabbing for our ankles, his seemingly lazy movements decisive. We’d jig over his hands, laughing ourselves wet. When caught I would curl up, like a slater on its back, and he would pry me open and play my ribs. I wanted him to let go even before he’d tethered me, and still I couldn’t get enough. I remember being proud of him: my father, that object I so coveted.
When I was a little older, it was my mother I cleaved to. My therapist suggests that my sustained absence from school when I was eleven was due, not to my neediness, but to my mother’s. I do not remember this. I do remember setting out for school and, halfway down the hill that rounded Brown’s Bay, suddenly not being able to draw breath. I would be terrified, crippled—staggering home to the sunny quiet of our lounge and the company of my mother. (Today I look at her, at fine white hair kinked up at the back of her head. We are collaborators in a plot to buy matching Christmas presents for the grandchildren that I was brought here, from Australia, to entertain. We talk about these things. I am looking at her, at the flesh over those fragile bones of her. The air of a world without her would, once again, be hard to draw.)
Over coffee, she tells my older sister that she has had sex with only one man in her life, my father.
Well—I always had an orgasm, she says with a shrug.
I am stunned when she talks like this because I am still trying to be the youngest child. I am not, like my sister, my mother’s confidante. There seems to be a limit on how much I have grown. That limit is a delicate border that I have tried to cross a number of times, and demolished in the process. When she was ill, my sister would go home to be looked after, would lie, wrapped in the mohair rug, on the couch. We had all lain there at one time or another, watching television with bleary eyes. I, however, suffered my sicknesses at home, grumbling around one of those flats I lived in, calling on the occasionally solicitous page 126 lover or housemate for comfort. I would go home when lovers left me, or when love deteriorated in its fashion. Sometimes I might stay for a day, or a weekend, sometimes a month or two. When love failed me, or I it, I went back to the only continuity I had known, to the ideal of ‘being together’ that I could never quite manage to live.
I remember, in the primer classes, how I used to bluff my way through the times tables, mouthing the chant when I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what 4×4 or 5×5 or 6×6 might equal. I got away with it, sneaking my innumeracy with me into adulthood. Simple equations baffle me. Particularly the imponderable 1×1, or even 1+1. Basic subtraction I can understand, but not division. What goes into what, with what left over.
There was my mother plus my father. There was Mary, my oldest sister, plus David, her husband. There was Elizabeth plus Fergus. 1+1=2. And there was me and Ailsa, me and Charlotte, me and Fenella, me and Emma, me and Cath. Cath and I, Emma and I, Fenella and I, Charlotte and I, Ailsa and I. A series of simple additions and subtractions. And then there was I. I came home and lay on the couch to watch the television with bleary, uncomprehending eyes. I sat at the kitchen table and played hand after hand of cards with Mum and Dad.
When I was young my parents told us they required only that we be happy. We did not have to make successes of ourselves in more objective terms. There was no talk of assets or career. And so it seemed to me that my wealth was what I would become: more and more of myself. Like some nineteenth-century Romantic, I set about storing experience and knowledge for its own sake (of which I alone was measure). I worked at being particular. My particularity attracted other eccentrics and we muddled through our age—like Peter Pan, forever playing and never growing old. It took me years of adventuring to realise that my parents’ prescription was a tyranny all its own. How could anyone stay happy?
I outlived everything—households, friendships, cats, lovers and, eventually even, countries. The world blew everyone I knew in different directions, and we settled or didn’t—the diaspora of doctoral students.
Where I have settled I have failed to take, coming equipped to this soil with altogether the wrong root system—something broad and deep when what was plainly required was a shallow, filigreed attachment.page 127
Not long before I left her, my lover, a reformed Catholic, took me to a regular Saturday evening service at St Patrick’s Cathedral. She wore the retro jacket I had just bought at Dangerfield. The vibrant yellow lettering on the dark blue of the wool proclaimed POM POM, and she bounced as she walked, rolling from foot to foot. People gathering for the Aids vigil took us for fellow protesters and Cath for a boy, for, as she bent to tie her boot laces, one of the guys behind us whispered to his mate, Best you don’t bend down in front of us. They stared incredulously at us as we turned into the cathedral grounds.
I was terrified. I stood, sat, kneeled and genuflected. I took my cue from Cath when it came time for communion and held on to the thought of my devoutly religious grandmother as if she were some kind of backstage pass to redemption. Being the day before Mother’s Day, the bishop spoke about the cathedral as the mother of all churches. The renovations, he pleaded, would need more money. When the collection plate came round I floated my last $5 on a sea of small change. Buildings I understand! I hissed at Cath out of the side of my mouth. When the collection was made for the parish I had nothing to give. Finally, we stood and the bishop called on each of us to absolve the other, to love our neighbour.
The only person in the pew beside me was my lover; she turned to me, clasped my hand, and said, Peace be with you!
And with you, I answered. I passed on the benediction to the stranger behind me, touching the sleeve of her brown jersey as I hurriedly shook her hand. To wish a stranger well was, at least, gracious. To be blessed by my own lover was terryfying.
The Melbourne I was accustomed to was a theme park for sexuality called the Scene. It was a term that would take on great meaning, being place and person at once. One could Do the Scene and one could Have a Scene, both pursuits supposedly remote from a real life in which meaning and comfort resided. The Scene is a happening and a place at which something happens; it is also nothing and nowhere. I have watched the crowd, looking for depths where there are only surfaces. Simple enquiries would fuel us, with the drugs, and keep us moving. They had a rhythym all their own: Who is that? Where is …? Have you seen …? Like that bit in the kids’ book Go Dog Go! when one dog page 128 hopefully asks, Do you like my hat? and the reply, good-natured but definite, nonetheless, is I do not like that hat! Other hats are tried, the same questions asked. One lives in hope, after all.
I loved the Scene when I was new, and single. I told Cath there was nothing to compare to it in Wellington, where the locals propped up the bar and refined conversation to drown out the ever-repeating Pet Shop Boys or Annie Lennox on the jukebox. On visits home I would advertise Melbourne as the final resting-place for any or all girls with pretension to style.
Cath was not a serious lover. That is, I loved her, but always passing through. I did not need ever to consider the difficulty of a future, the reciprocal agreement on residency between the New Zealand and Australian governments having taken care of all that. Staying became a matter best addressed in those letters that are, by very definition, some kind of delicately worked lie. I wrote I love you and went on with my life, alone and entire.
Till one night, when drunk, I cajoled her into telling me she loved me; till one day she announced she was coming over. I listened to her, watching the mouthpiece of the telephone as if it could frame the words better than those lips of hers I could not then quite recall.
And so she arrived, on the hottest day of summer in early 1995, the last and least likely of all my lovers; the one on whom I had sworn to redeem every grievous sin of loving I had ever made.
I met Cath when she was ten years younger than me. She has persisted in remaining ten years younger than me, and we know each other better now. She acted (if one can be said to act such a role) my dead lover in my debut fetish performance. I mourned over her by candlelight, painted scarlet her nipples and lips, and tried to breathe, with a kiss, life back into lungs already tensely filled. In the video her heart beats, visibly, beneath her listing breast. A lively, lovely nineteen-year-old, turning up early to rehearsals with her ever-present friend. They jumped on every podium, and tested guy ropes for maximum swing. Their eyes went wide and everywhere.
Her eyes went wide, trying to hold mine, in that small, off-white page 129 walled motel room we rented. What we had I called ‘a Scene’, having, in my bookish way, learned the term from books. What we had were different things. I had the time of my life. I had blood all down the right thigh of my jeans, and could not that night take off my coat at dinner. And, singularly, I had a memory of another woman that turned into a haunting. Mine, then, was a revelation that I would be a long time more lost in love, and that I could hide that loss in my fist, curled inside another woman.
There is an etiquette that very nearly forbids me writing what Cath had. I think she had a very bad time, and a time that she would beggar her life trying to repeat. She had what she thought was me, the thing she would hate and love until she realised it was a chimera, a phantom, a certain sense of style and practice made, momentarily, flesh. Her obsession was the foundation upon which was built the everyday love that now so poorly shelters us from each other.
It was not long after her arrival in Australia that we first tackled the question of monogamy. I had loved everyone, everywhere, had broken one love in my hurry to get to the next. I wanted to redeem this inattention, because I could not gather up the past and hold it to me as I wanted. Redemption was a palpable thing; it filled my mouth, forcing out every loving word I spoke.
She came to live with me. She travelled light, but brought with her little things, like the dried-up ballpoint pen in the shape of a hound dog with sagging, blue cheeks. She brought her favourite ashtray, and smoked in my room, after politely asking for the privilege. She brought her midi system. It was this that reminded me I loved her, just as, when I was three years old, I finally deigned to remember my prodigal father, when he produced—from his expanded, expandable suitcase—a bear, paws clutching drumsticks, poised above the drum hung from his neck.
At night, I would lie turned away from her, my body half off the bed, as if I were about to flee. I did not want to know her; could not see in her what once I had loved. She seemed shallow, childlike and a little dim. If she asks me another stupid question, I’ll kill her, I thought. But I was solicitous to hide my disdain. She was, after all, a house guest.
My body was a marker, and eventually my feeling returned to it, like page 130 blood to chilled limbs. Her shallow and childlike qualities became disarming, her dimness merely fey. My love of her put me back on the road to redemption.
The road to redemption, as it turned out, ran past too many venues. Cath loved the dancing, the lights, the human scenery. She would dance all night, seemingly oblivious to company. She watched, like that red setter I used to pass on my way back from work, its stupid dog nose pressed to the window of the butcher shop. I called her ‘Dog’, affectionately. She was sealed off from the world, and—I discovered—even from me.
One night Cath didn’t come home. The day before was a Sunday. As we walked down Brunswick Street the autumn daylight lay unrevealingly on every surface. Over the lunch she paid for (and I didn’t eat) we had the last of our discussions about monogamy. My mouth became tired while I talked. I had already done things—at the time when my body was waiting for me to inhabit it; at the time when I could not bear to touch her. I knew that she wanted to take advantage of the Scene. It was not difficult to sympathise; after all I had been that young at least twice in my life, once just after I got to Melbourne. But being monogamous was part of the test I had set myself, was a stop along that road to redemption I was so set upon. I told her that love was a relative rarity, that there was plenty of time to have fun when you were single. I had lost too much by being simply curious, I told her. I know, believe me. A weight was falling in me that defied all measure. Cath’s blue eyes watched me, wide again, and baffled. She saw that I was afraid of what might happen and agreed, then and there, to be monogamous.
I don’t need to fuck anyone else, she said.
There’s no one I’m interested in, she told me.
The next night I worked at the cheese factory, wrapping wedges of Brie and Camembert in an eight-hour shift, 3.30 to midnight. I attempted to absorb myself in the strange sign language of the six or seven simple movements required to wrap or label a cheese. Instead, my mind boiled over, sick to death of the folding and tapping. It would fold and tap in its own way.
In the first ten-minute break I rang home for Cath. My housemate, page 131 Sabrina, told me she was not home, speculating that she must have her head stuck up someone’s cunt.
Yeah, right, I replied.
At dinner break, I finally reached Cath and she said she was going out to Viv’s birthday party, a woman we both knew wanted very much to fuck her. I told her that was nice, and that she should enjoy herself, and I wouldn’t expect her till late. I listened for something else on the telephone line, something outside of her voice to explain to me why it suggested a lack of connection. There was the hiss of the line, the breat of her goodbye, a click, then the burr of the wire closed from her end and open at mine.
At the cheese factory productive hours exceeded hours worked and I got to go home early. A litter of empty bottles and overstuffed ashtrays lay strewn across the kitchen table. When I went to bed I knew I wouldn’t sleep, so I watched John Wayne call Jimmy Stewart Pilgrim and learn the value of a bravado that does not involve gunplay. No one I know understands westerns, most of my friends cannot even watch a film if it was made before 1975 or shot in black-and-white. The film should have been company of a kind I can’t otherwise find, but I missed half the dialogue because I was listening for the door.
When I lay in the dark trying to sleep the quiet of that same, unopened door kept me awake. At 4am I turned on the light and read a story about a blizzard that struck Michigan in the 1930s, freezing people to death in the time it took them to take three steps out their front door. It was an interesting story, full of literally statuesque corpses and oddities of nature. The snow might as well have been falling in my room, covering me in drifts, like the sand that hides the drifter’s corpse in Sjöström’s The Wind. I lay, thus oppressed, till Sabrina came home, without Cath and too drunk to tell me anything other than that she’d stayed over there, with Viv. I stumbled, under the weight of the snow, back to bed.
A year before I’d been similarly floored. I had been to Viv’s party, had troubled to make her a birthday card on which I’d laced, in leather, my greeting. It hung from the card like a pigtail. I shouldn’t have been going to the party, I felt unwell and embarrassed at my own cheek. Viv and I page 132 generally avoided each other; I had had an affair with her girlfriend that she could forgive neither of us, although they’d been non-monogamous at the time. The girlfriend had felt she was not allowed to speak to me and I endured Viv’s hostile stares for months without profit.
At the party we arrived far too early, and I watched Madonna’s Girly Show with great attention. I even talked, for what seemed like hours, to a woman whose hair was teased into a great crimson clot on her head, who echoed every piece of dialogue on the video and even—God save us!— some of the choreography. But I would have talked to the pot plants if it had saved me from making eye contact with Viv or Nerada. I left early, returning to an empty house and a phonecall from the woman I was then seeing, irate that I did not intend to visit her. To forstall her anger I bicycled to Thornbury, lay on her carpeted lounge floor, washed in a tide of pain.
It’s nothing, I told her, just a cyst. It will pass.
But it didn’t pass. I vomited the painkillers and the valium she gave me. She finally bullied me into taking a taxi with her to hospital. I huffed over the fuss and nonsense but, after six hours and four consulting physicians, my appendix burst, silencing my protests completely.
(See, this is what you’ve meant to me, I will tell Viv, much later, slightly drunk, at one of those venues.
You’re bad luck.
She looks at me, sidelong, uncomprehending. Nobody talks about portent and omen in a nightclub. I seem bizarre in my sincerity. Her mouth drops open just enough for me to glimpse the tongue-piercing that so impressed Cath.)
That Tuesday morning I moved out, then back, everything Cath owned. Sabrina warned me not to be preemptive, rubbed my back and enfolded me in a one-armed hug.
You don’t really know what Cath’s doing, she pointed out, quite reasonably. It was unsafe to assume anything lest one’s reaction precipitate a disaster, rather than this mere premonition of one.
Cath came home past midday, calmly sucking on the straw of her Ribena. She was flushed, her black jeans covered in candlewax from the page 133 molten patch she’d sat in, drunk and tripping, on Viv’s bed. Finally, I asked whether she’d fucked Viv. She took a speculative sip at her blackcurrant juice, as if testing it for temperature, and told me, yes, she had.
It was not the jealousy, nor was it the righteous anger. It was not the waiting, the not knowing and the knowing, all those hours I couldn’t sleep. Not even that. It was simply the way in which she sucked on that plastic straw. I asked her if she knew what she’d done. I asked her how she could come here, blithely sucking on that fucking straw. I asked, I cajoled, I demanded and, finally, I yelled, repeatedly using the word cunt, which I reserve for apoplectic states of fury. Her expression was witless and blank; there was nowhere there for my anger and grief to find purchase; even my words fell short, so my hands reached beyond them, and I held her throat and squeezed until my feeling registered in her eyes. I would have cheerfully killed her then, but for the embarrassing fact that I’m writing a book on murder.
In the weeks that followed, I found many more names to describe Cath, as if they could somehow redeem to me her absence. I did not leave her, except for four or five days, but she managed not to be with me in any case. When I talked of her to friends, I called her Sharky, demonstrating the way in which she seemed to cruise the depths, her dull eyes moving languidly from shadow to flitting shadow. Where she was was somewhere I couldn’t get to, so I called her The Creature from Planet X. What she was was something I did not have, so I called her The Clayton’s Girlfriend, that is, the girlfriend you have when you’re not having a girlfriend. All of this made things tremendously clear; even, I think, to Cath, who is—by nature—muddy.
There was nothing funny about it, really. Or perhaps it was a joke I should have expected, my grandiose hopes considered. I wanted to prove myself at love, to redeem the various losses I had already inflicted or sustained. I wanted to work hard at love. And I have had to, tried by quite unexpected challenges, some of which are testing precisely because they are stupid, wasteful, and just so much repetition.
People seem fond these days of talking about the ‘90s way’, whether that be fashion, music or ethics. Cath tells me, with a scornful smile, that this is the 90s, babe. Non-monogamy is the way to go. It would be useless to page 134 tell her that non-monogamy was not invented in the 1990s, and that it is a dog that has had several days this century, not least of those during the heyday of second-wave feminism. The ethics she finds so ‘rad’, comes, like its language, from a time she can only describe as ‘naff’. In the 1990s we are, all of us—through the vainglorious avant-gardes of our retro sexualities—born again. I have been born again before, have slid over the surface of sexual politics and style like a skater over ice. I have been non-monogamous, monogamous and a cheater, depending on my mood and my own better nature; depending, too, upon the person with whom I tried to live that love. There is not a book in the world that I can hold up as a bible, to witness before the novitiates of these changing faiths that this, by god, is the way to love.
Somewhere in the midst of my trouble with Cath, the invisible woman, I called up my sister in New Zealand. She listened to me sympathetically, perhaps not remembering that the phrases I used to describe my doomed relationship were hers. Months before, she warned me about the way in which I was courting disaster with my fun on the Scene. She said I had two registers—one of which was extraordinarily narrow, and if I persisted on the Scene this register would predominate.
Cath’s emotional register is shallow, I told Elizabeth, if I overlaid mine on hers it would look like Goldilocks lying on the bed of baby bear.
We simply do not measure up, I pronounced.
Everything has become a matter of register, of the permeability of emotions and their impact. Register is a word that describes a great deal, for it is person and place at once. It is something and somewhere.
Cath phones me late one night to say she’ll not talk to me ever again. (She has not, in any case, been talking to me for some time—her surly looks graze the top of my head when we meet in public.)
See you in another life! she, cheerily, farewells.
But Cath, we only have the one!
She has already put the phone down.
That summer I first met Cath I had returned to New Zealand parading a tan, proof that I’d become Australian. It was discommoding and page 135 dangerous keeping up the tan in Wellington, lying in the sun there is uncannily like being a chop under the griller. Still, grill I did, in the mornings before Elizabeth disappeared into her study to write.
One morning she came out the back door to survey the shrubs in the planting border beneath the retaining wall. They were all healthy and well, flourishing in the shelter of the back section and under the tender ministrations of what, in her, had turned out to be a suprisingly green thumb. Having ascertained their welfare, she stood over me, blocking my sun. I shaded my eyes and looked at her.
Elizabeth does not often provide much preface to her thoughts; they come out, startlingly formed, as if from the forehead of Zeus.
You ought to have a child you know.
To temper this, she added, You’d make a good mother. (Now I wonder whether perhaps she thought she wasn’t.)
I started to protest that I was just starting a career, had no steady lover, it was not a matter of wanting, but practicalities.
And then she said: When Mum and Dad are dead, what will be your family?
You, I answered, but that was not what she meant.
I could think of nothing else to say; started crying as she moved away, leaving the sun to stifle me.
Jack came out from the kitchen, heralded by the wooden trolley that seemed, then, to be his prosthesis. He was huge for a year and a half, and full of beans, as my Mother would say. He wheeled the trolley up to me, banging up against my thigh, then changed the angle of his attack and bumped up against my side. I shielded my nipple-piercing fearfully and fended him off. He ran away, ramming the trolley under the verandah rim, completely absorbed by the whells’ trajectory.
Someone once told me a ludicrous fact—there are as many people alive now on this planet as all the dead there have ever been. The present is as weighty as the past. If that law is general then I am safe; the future is not the eye of a needle.
There is Jack, after all, and Elizabeth.