Sport 43: 2015
Tracey Slaughter — 50 ways to meet your lover
50 ways to meet your lover
Turn left, west, where the voice is telling you. There’s nothing here. A zone where they put up the kind of buildings no one needs to walk through the door of, bleached industrial squares selling things no one wants. But the voice is certain. You’re here. You park. This can’t be right. You think about backhanding the screen so the useless voice can’t repeat itself. But you don’t: you can just hear the way your husband would go off. You wait for a while. Decide you may as well scrape up the litter from the floor of the car while you’re here. May as well: the whole afternoon feels like a shrug. There’s a king bin you can dump it in. So you’ve got handfuls of slippery till trail, coupons for next to nothing off, plastic wrap from a world of bad choices stuffed in your grip when you catch sight. It’s him. It’s not. It can’t be. Only it is.
It’s him. Only.
The voice announces out the open car door that you’ve arrived at your destination. You should have bashed its budget teeth in when you had the chance.
Your mother calls. She never calls. But she’s fizzing. You can’t even hear her flicking the pages of her magazines while she’s talking. You can’t even hear her lighting up. She’s not even pausing to poison herself. So this must be choice. You wait for the gossip—someone’s daughter, no doubt, has dropped a Down syndrome kid, or embezzled the kindergarten fundraising, or can’t fit into anything but polar fleece and Crocs because she’s packed on the pounds. But no: it’s your turn. You’ve got her attention. You’re better than roll your own. You’re better than the Emmy spread ofpage 155 Best and Worst gowns.
She’s seen him. She bumped into him at a local do, a reunion, well, it was a funeral really, but everyone had such a beaut time catching up. And she knew he was watching her. She knew it. But he didn’t come over for a while. Not until he was properly plastered. There were tears in his eyes. Tears, for real. She’s not shitting you. And you’ll never believe what he looks like now: he looks mean. She’ll repeat that, mean, you would not believe. And he told her he’d never stopped loving her daughter. He fell in love with you back then and it had never worn off.
My daughter, she says. He’d loved my daughter all these years. And he looked mean, but I tell you, in his eyes there were tears.
It’s been a long time since you were my daughter. It must have made you seem worthwhile. Tears in his mean eyes made you worth calling. She might even spread it, might even hiss it, later, round the ladies’ night. You might be the talk of the garden bar.
Whatever, you say. And hang up.
You’ve got to go because the lever of your wrist is going to give way and splash the phone, the sink you’re standing over is going to find your head in it, your mouth stretched in a howl of soapy Os, your knees unhinged and letting you skid to the lino taking down a clatter off the bench, so you’re huddled in a spray of last night’s foodscraps, your arse in a puddle and up in the slack of your lemonfresh disinfected hair a tiara of crumbs. You’re a joke. You’re fucking soaking in it.
You are standing in a dusk itchy with flies and stars. There is everything between you. A school picnic. Kids with sauce on their cheeks and tinsel in their hair. Tufts of Glad Wrap round the paddock. Someone painting faces with oozy stripes that look allergenic and carnival. Someone lashing the ankles of mothers together to gun them three-legged to the crinkle of tape. Petspage 156 shitting on the end of their leashes, having clawed off their also-ran ribbons. Kids behind cardboard stalls flogging rubbish they’ve glued. The smiles on the mothers that bake. The smiles on the mothers whose Tupperware is name-tagged. The smiles.
You want to walk through them all and tug him by the edge of his teeshirt. Over the pitch. Out through the courts, through the posts, to where the field turns to tussock and storm bank and shoelessness and gulf. You are standing in a dusk and that’s what you want. You’re woozy with the goal of it. You’re crooked to the thighs.
But you’re rostered on. How could you forget? One of the smiles has to trot over and tell you it’s your turn on the hotdogs. There’s tubs of marge to get to the edges of the bagged bread. There’s onions, to give you something to cry about.
People die. People you both know. You hover at the cusp of the ingoing crowd. Everyone has turned slow motion in their good shoes. They bottleneck the aisles. Glass cuts the heat into colours that feel unholy. Everyone is dressed to the point of suffocation. You can’t count the degrees of sun reflected on your spine. Your black zipper itches. Your hair wilts out of the fix you sprayed round it, a gauzy radius of triple super-hold. You sweat on the commemorative programme. You try not to smudge the corpse’s face.
It’s the kind of church where you have to wedge a stool down under your lineup of bad knees and mutter thanks. The litany comes out so half-arsed. It’s the kind of church where no one can sing, except the vicar, whose contralto is a shrill joke. He pipes it hard and pious and pitchy so you drop your head as if you’re praying. The hymns keep coming so it looks like you and God are tight.
You’re not going to look in the coffin. Blow that. Where did it even come from, the idea of parading past the box—from the old days where they needed to doublecheck you’d carked? You hangpage 157 back when the queue starts. You pat a tissue at the damp flex of mascara so people will think you’re overcome. Not squeamish. At the back of the church someone is juggling a baby. The heat is dialing up. The flowers bulge with scent, looming off the altar. How long does it take to kiss a corpse goodbye anyway. The baby handler is doing a lousy job of shutting it up. The air feels whiney with lilies. You hate that pollen. People file back from rubbernecking death and press against your flanks.
You don’t see him until you’re saying hallelujah for your club sandwich, giving thanks for the trinity of ham and cucumber and mashed egg with no crusts. Everyone’s black clothes are clichéd with sweat, clouded at the impractical armpits. He’s flushed too: he’s rucking with the collar of his suit, but knocks it off when he spots you. Juts his lats back, his jaw up, the way he used to, tries to look swag as he weaves through the pack of old ladies fussing round the cake. You don’t want to smile: you know your gums will be arched with suckers of soft white bread.
But then you’re not dead.
You’ve learnt to back down from your mother. The guy behind the counter can tell your training is just about to kick in. It’s in his face as he goes through the warranty clauses: he’s banking on you giving up. And that’s what makes you smack both wrists on the bench, your fingernails a tenfold piss-off. No way mate. You are not going to stand for it. You want to see the manager.
You wait in the manager’s office. The chair they’ve put you on is munted, so you pulse a little on the plastic seat, a diagonal tock. You’re out of sync with the minute hand. The lino gives your sandals an unwashed scud. You’re not touching the water they’ve given you. The children framed on the desktop are diving into sunlight only money can buy. You feel ripped off.
You ready your turned back when the door opens. You pick off the foldback clip on your homefile of docs and get ready to drop them in a splay, an I-mean-business spread, aggressive, on his desk.page 158
When he touches your hair. So you twist to see who it is. His hand goes looking for memory. The air in the room is out of order. Small claims scatter to your anklestrap. The half-hearted water glass floods. Your scalp goes neon with love.
The world is a jigsaw of places you could meet him in. This town is a big dark chunk, a solid edge, its streets interlocking one border of the lonely rented life he’s bound to find you in, pretending to trade under your married name, telling your lies. You feel yourself getting backed against it. At night, you look out the window and the streetlights click the aimlessness into sequence. In other lives that you’ve slipped past leading, the headlights of his car will pull toward you or away, deciding the direction you’ll walk in when you wake, the outline you will chalk into dreams to help your fall. You know what you’ve got coming.
You’re on a jetty. The sea could not be slimier, moving in sucks of green oil through gaps in the boards. Nailheads stick out. Nothing round here is safe. The soles of your feet are good as fish in their grieving. You could paddle on the splinters all day. And why don’t you? Take your shoes off or leave them on? Plastic bags wobble past in the foam. The aching of ropes leads down to the water. Everything down there discolours and bloats. The ridges of your mouth don’t feel like words will ever split them open again.
He’s gone. It should be what’s written on all of the hulls that are turning in the harbour. It should be what’s written on the concave silk you find when you pick up the bleached scab of a shell. He’s gone.
Pace the boards. Your shoes weigh nothing. Testing, testing. Everything down there knows it.page 159
So: reality TV. He’s in a gang of contestants, scrounging for clues on an island somewhere. The sun is too good for him. You’d like to kick sand in his face. But you watch his backbone, coming out of scrub. He’ll find the idol, he always does. The scramble of his thighs wins every battle, his throat bound in flag, his torso a tough republic. You map the drip of his sweat, think of swallowing its nutrients. The night vision camera makes you want to slip your thumbs into the phosphorescence of his eyes. The bend of his retinas, his teeth, should be cupped like pearls.
Vote him out first.
It has to be this cheap. There has to be twin lemon polyester bedspreads that smell like burnt hair. There has to be a blue plastic New Testament, chill to the touch in the lino-topped drawer. The blinds have to leave your thumbprints hanging in the dust. By the unit door there has to be a frosted globe of light the glass has busted on, trimmed with the crisp dark joints of roasted insect. You have to stare at it. Wing and thorax, a comical crystal ball of fuzz.
You wait a long time. There has to be time to wait. Or how would you see the detail: the looped pile in the orange carpet, how the ball of your foot can ooze through its swirls. There has to be time to locate the band of hair clustered in the shower grille. It’s turning into a crown, bonded with slime. There has to be time to find that. The brown lines parched into the leathery apricot soap. Wire legs on the bouclé chairs. The flex to the fringed lamps thick as tendons. The melted roses on the toaster’s plastic tray. How would you feel if you missed any of that.
How would you feel if you couldn’t smell your breath in the Arcoroc coffee cup, the fumes of stale remorse damp on your makeup? How would you feel if the vintage TV didn’t hiccup through three silver channels, flashes of re-run glitching the water you don’t let tip out your pencilled eyes. It’s a good themesong forpage 160 weeping but there’s not enough volume. You hover above the bowl to piss. You have to laugh at yourself, squatting upright, your OCD flanks. The blinds have to break up the mirror, seven years of bad luck you only blink at. Your hairdo has to turn orange with the carpark glow. You have to lay down. You decide its wigs, or maybe the dolls you boxed up back in childhood—yes, the bedspreads smell like wigs.
He has to knock, although he has a key. You have to say no, you’ve changed your mind. Everything feels like lint, the air on your lipstick, the chain to the faux-paneled door. The ashtrays have to be scallop shells. You can’t stand the feel of scallop shells. You can’t stand the sound they make on the glass coffee table every time you stub. It gets in your teeth, that sound, that calcified ripple, like tiny bones clicking out of place. It’s the sound as you rig your last cigarette, exhaled to the base, in that pink fluted dump. Then open the door to him after all.
Because you’re a joke. You have to be a cheap joke, don’t you? Everything here has been pointing to it.
Later, he pulls the New Testament out of its bedside cubby. It lies on his abdomen. There’s a spiral of hair as dark as all the ex-flies nuked and suspended outside the unit door. The testament breathes there. We have to sin, he says to you. He pulls a preacher’s yea-behold hand sign, grinning. We have to. Verily I say. We have to sin. Or Jesus died for nothing.
The woman at the shop has had a gutsful of tourists. Dark brown freckles spurt down her forearms as she grapples with the ice-cream scoop. The back of her hands look like they’ve been dragged through sand. She’s gruff with the mint choc chip—the bastard’s iced up.
You’ve got plenty of time to pick out the change, exact, while she’s hacking at the pastel tub. The cone stand makes a graunchpage 161 as she shoves yours upright—a triple, of course, it bloody had to be. You hold the little stack of coins over her palm, release with a simper. You hear her sling them in the till, huffy, as you flick out through the anti-fly rainbow flaps.
The track there is longer than you thought, and rougher. Your jandals keep skidding on the clay, and you give sudden blushing oohs and off-kilter whoopsies checking for anyone around to snicker your way. But it’s nice and clear. You gum on the balls of mint. The heat drips the green down the cone, so you sop up with your tongue.
Your ticker is thudding by the time you reach the stairs. Its steeper than you’d bargained for, a shonky frame of salt-bleached wood. The plastic tread they nailed on the steps has sheared off to poke up in silly black curls from its pins. You suck on the last of your cone to get your hands free. The balcony is beautifully soggy at the base of the icecream, baggy with sweetness.
Once you’ve got down, you let your jandals ping you through the scruff of seaweed to the finer white. The rock cathedral is crooked and smells of secrets that the earth is keeping. Cool ripples work the distance of minerals up through the strangeness of the roof. The air feels ancient, moulded to your mouth like a song. You slip off your jandals and let your feet mottle the sand. You always thought you’d marry here. Oh well.
There’s no sense feeling sorry. It could be worse as you dig your towel out your kit and flap it open in the sunlight. It could be worse than a gladwrapped package of sandwiches and a flask-for-one. A little dip in the tide and a paperback romance. You should be careful what you hanker for. There’s nothing like getting your haunches settled on your towel with the warmth of the sand humming through to them. You pat on your sunscreen, set up your jandals in a neat couple at the end of the towel, toeprints in a smutty fan. What more could you ask.page 162
There are no turns to take. Just the grey of a lefthanded world driving in through your screen. There are letterboxes. They’re not all white, but they look it. The words inside them seem very black when you blink. You blink. He is never in the words. He is never in a letter sent to any number down a road where you are always moving backwards until you reach a house where you still don’t stop though you’re at zero.
You don’t have a self in a waiting room. You have a name and a vowel sound. They call one and you answer with the other. The two do not seem joined anymore. You are joined to the chair with its blue vinyl grips. You are joined to the steel rings puncturing the curtain. You are joined to the yellow needle stubbed into your wrist with its jack of clouded tubing. When they lie you flat later, you are joined to the keyboard that is wheeled to the ward by a senior troop of do-gooders. The morphine takes no time to climb your bicep and punch across the easy muscle of your heart. The morphine joins you deeper to the song being pumped out of the keyboard, What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
Once you used to daydream of accidents you’d have. You thought they would bring him back. He would cross to you and ponder your hair, strewn by emergency. He would not stand to see you suffer. He would make it stop. You would still have mascara on. And if it wasn’t him it would be another man. Someone would find you, spritzed with fever, pale and silkily arranged in your tragedy.
When the salvation keyboard has finished, one of the aging singers comes to your bed. She leaves you a flannel with crocheted edges and a tie-on card with a psalm on it. She will visit again tomorrow. It will be the season for you to throw up. The plastic puke container is the size of a Chinese takeout serve and she will hold it although it’s not big enough. She will use the flannel to rinse off the pigment of your sick, your pretty lashes dragged away with it.page 163
You will look forward to seeing her.
You will read the psalm and cry.
You will think God looks like a woman with a lukewarm rag who knotted its edges by hand.
You will live for the nightshift dose of morphine uttering its subcutaneous blasphemies.
You’re taking off your makeup. Once you used to hate doing this because there was a young girl waiting underneath. Now you hate doing it because there is an old woman. You can’t wait to put a fresh coat on.
You try not to look at the still life of your face. If he had chosen you, you would have had a different one. You could have stared at the whole thing, instead of painting in corners. The lines aren’t even fine print anymore. You apply shadows, tack around the lips. You strain the skin sideways. Black visors cloak your eyes. You tweeze your brows into broken feathers. Close-range, side-on, you eyeball your pores, use a thumbnail to dredge out silver jelly.
All you’ve done is paint on another face he’ll never love.
You’re having a pyjama day. That’s it, fuck it. It’s for mental health. You’ll bung your hair in a ponytail where it will wobble around unwashed. You’ll boycott bras, or underarm, or breakfast. You’ll leave the curtains yanked shut, hotbox the lounge and plug in every crap movie you can think of. Calorie intake will be continuous, sticky and guiltfree. You will let out farts into your flannelette boxers.
You will forget your calendar. You’ll forget there’s a Trademe pickup coming. You will freeze with the first door knocks, think if you don’t budge they’re bound to back off and just go home. But they don’t. They head around, hunting for gaps in the curtains. They can hear the white noise of TV. Just your luck that the violins are gearing up to underline a true romantic bit.page 164
So you’ve got no choice. He starts hailing from the kitchen side, where he can see clear through. What’s worse, when you roll your arse off the couch you trip over the manky cat, launch across the lounge with a stumble that’s still going by the door handle. He’s speechless when the door bunts open. He gives the waistband of his shorts an awkward lift. His workboots are charged with clay up the tread. The print of the cushion on your lazy face must look like a birthmark: you can feel its pins and needles. But turns out he’s got a grin to give you. Turns out he’s not hard on the eyes. Turns out he doesn’t mind his women no frills.
The days are filling with ways he won’t meet you. You’re still drunk when you wake up. The room is sandbagged with stale clothes, not all of them yours, and everything you touch is an omen. You rake down the blinds to try to bypass the sun but the season is full-scale, the heat won’t be blocked. Your tongue is rugged in a bloodless mouth. Small errors blur everything. All the hallways feel like hairpin turns—you get nowhere fast. Outside six birds are picking the kerbside clean. But you can’t eat. His face in the back of your memory doesn’t help you watch the man in the bed, who turns when you go back to the room, and makes a reach like a shortcut for a better gesture. You lie down under that abbreviation of touch.
You drink on the swings and the piss spreads a sting through your chest. The chains click. There are seagulls everywhere, strands of fishline snagged in their feathers, seed-eyes, and ragged webbed feet. Such mongrel birds. The sea that’s supposed to be here for you has backed off for miles. The harbour’s full of holes, shallow O’s in the flat light, part silver, part shit. They make you blink. Your hips hurt, the bones of them built too wide for the vinyl hanger. You catch a length of hair in the cleats and your scalp pulls up, redhot, at the temple. But it’s worth it. Because he leans in and tells you, it’s a long road, but he knows you’re waiting at the end of itpage 165 for him. Yeah, that’s it, you’re like his fate. The other girls mean nothing. You’re meant to be. So you chug vodka and murmur it into his kiss, as the gulls flog each other for crusts and the mud flicks the sun out.
Just walk in! Great First Home! Everything’s been straightened, and the realtor’s gone with the trick of bread baking, fumed the house with yeasty warmth. But they can’t hide the signs of a split. Unfaded frame shapes left on the wallpaper, not a white dress to be seen in the shots still tacked up. Lawyer’s cards under the butterfly magnets on the fridge. Vendors are Motivated! Your husband keeps touching you every room you view—just an index tap on your forearm, out of the realtor’s gaze, a code for the deal you could score. Has to be Seen to be Believed! You can hear your kids, their racket in the ¼ acre section! You open the bathroom cupboards and one side is wiped clean—though there’s shreds of stubble knocked from a shaver left in the corner. So this could be it. Your husband has gone outside to tone the kids down—they’ve showered the lawn in hoodies and boots and taken to the trampoline. You go to the office, where it’s all him, packed into cartons, find yourself flicking up a layer of wrap. The size of the photo you have in your hand is a jigsaw fit for the fade in the living room wall: and the groom is looking straight at you. You go back to the bathroom, lick your finger and dab it in the scurf. Your heart gets crammed with blood. The kids are a circus outside. The realtor’s creeping the verandah with its Wrap Around Views! Your husband is walking the narrow hallway and you know from the set of his jawline that he’s running figures on A Future in the Sun! You put a hand to the neck of your shirt and use it to scour the collarbone that won’t stop leaping, your finger, unforgivable, alive with his roughage.page 166
They send you back to clean Room 617. Someone’s complained they lost their wallet—bitch at the office eyeballs you like you’re suspect. What the fuck ever. Exhibit A: you drag back the trolley, flipping her the bird. Crank the key and the smog of sealed room hits you. You’re well into the off season. Only couples that book in now are up to nothing good. They need to get well off the map. You rark through all the likely spots, yank back curtains, the shadows in the sou’east of the wardrobe. Everything stinks of emptiness. Everything’s holding this chill of cheap carpet and sweat, base-rate rooms only used for a fuck. Pastels, no-extras, the scent of dripping taps, but the splendour of skin gone to shine in endless wrangling—rooms that get to stage the epic dirty things no marriage does. Or so you reckon. But you can’t find a wallet, no matter how you dredge the corners. Until you’ve got down on your gut, aimed your head in the dark channel under the Super King. You need to get back up, ram the handle of the mop back in the gap to swish the billfold free. Then you squat there, turning the clear plastic flaps, your body stiff in its budget uniform, viewing the faces of him and his kids, a lineup of birthdays, and mugshots of travel, his wife with her middleclass strings of fob-chain dangled from the shoulder he’s got tensed with the fucking Taj Mahal in the background.
In the lefthand corner there’s the edge of his board, the scuffle of wax up its curve gone murky with toeholds. You remember that. Behind him the bed, you know, will be riveted with sand. His teeshirt will be greasy, and you’ll be pitiful, tapping the print on his diaphragm where the logo for a car-yard leads nowhere near his heart. The room will smell like mosquitoes, a high-pitched smell so full of summer you scratch and pant. Your feet will be bare, but still reek of jandals, the nub of wet rubber haltering your toes. You’ll pull off your singlet, but still have a bib of sunburn, dribbled with freckles, like scraps of a better girl’s tan. You’ll trypage 167 to kiss him until your teeth ache. You’ll let him buckle your legs and slide you back on the lino. You’ll want to get that ugly 70s print tattooed in black fins on your back—go on, let him walk on you. There’s a spiderplant dangled from his Mum’s macramé that hangs there like a brown beaded spine. You mouth is branded Lion Red. The windows are scaly—the whole town looks like salt. But there isn’t a town out there anyway, only a spit, a flatline horizon, kids dropping like gulls off the one-lane bridge, a distance of pines carved off at the stumps, trucks low-gearing out to the exit you’re too young and thick to take. You’ll take it later. Maybe you will. Freehand, now, you’re just all over his skin. He’s sour and the low tick of veins are in your mouth, one real deep thump where your lip meets cock base, spaz of hair that tastes of togs. There’s ants, singlefile, where he’s left a sandwich, stubbed in gladwrap, a collection of shot-glasses, flags he scored for some shit at school. For being first, for being beautiful. You get up and study the shape of the photo that no one ever takes, the shadows of it fluid on his outstretched trunk, the fused light waiting in the blue pools of his hand. You walk out the memory and pass it to me. I add it to the album of moments I never got to frame before he changed his mind and kicked me out of the room like the easy lay I was.
Write a story. Place him at the righthand edge of the sentence, crouched. Use a shadow, running the length of his shoulder, to signal his intent to turn. Lay a comma on the brink of his hipline, a suspended pause of dark. Space your fingers on the keys: they are the roots of his hair. Pray he never gets closer than the page.