So, like a living cliche of unrequited love, I decide to run away to a distant outback town of miners, dust and gold. I say it is for work so that you won’t know it is because of you. Probably you guess anyway. You tell me I will love it there. You sound excited but I can only notice that it is the first time you mention me and love in the same sentence. A few nights before I leave – this is summer, the nights are close and there’s the ring of crickets in the air –I drive my car far into the flat, moonlit wheat fields. I watch road trains sweep past me and am desperate for something I cannot name. My heart is swimming for you; I want to run or scream or cry. Instead, I turn around and drive home. David Crosby is on the radio and he pours harmonies into my blood. I am full of the things I cannot touch: the night, the music and love. I sing along “I just want to hold you; I don’t want to hold you down.” but I know this is not true, that I really feel the opposite. Then I am gone and the summer grows between us and our one night together, a night when I drunkenly kissed your laughing face, everything so brilliant and you out of focus so clearly. Months later you write me a letter to say you have met someone. You write, “He reminds me of you” and you do it without irony or cruelty, just the heedlessness of early love. You are right about one thing though: I do love that mining town and I marry this beautiful teacher there. I hear that you marry a policeman with a sense of humour. Now the teacher and the cop are gone and the years have swept us together again on this strange promontory. You send me an email out of the blue and when I reply you write, “I’d forgotten your dry sense of humour.” Oh you and your funny men, I think. But I can’t be bitter, not really. Instead I write you a story that I know will make you laugh. Then I press ENTER. I wait.
Category Archives: loss
After John died, I started to take the books from the shelves of his study and pack them into boxes. I didn’t know him that well but it made me sad somehow to touch the things he’d left behind, to start the process of emptying the world of another life. It got me thinking about all the books I’d read in my own time and then I wondered what the point of all that reading was. The more I thought about all those novels and poems and biographies, the less I could remember about them. Only bits of plot, a character here and there and, every now and again, a line of particular beauty. That’s not much for all those milliions of words, I thought. So many thousands of dollars and hours invested in books and now the words mostly gone, the scenes long faded and only a faint impression of the pleasure of it all remaining. That’s a bit like life, I guess; so many minutes and hours and days of precious existence, the detail mostly forgotten and in the end only the sense of it all lingering. That’s all that’s left, before memory itself ceases,just the suggestion of a life, left behind like the beautiful pools of a vanishing tide.
On a late Sunday afternoon in Lincoln, Nebraska, I emerged from a movie theatre feeling like someone had just put a skewer through my life and slowly barbecued it for three hours. I was alone in this big, flat, corn-fielded state; there was a slight coolness in the air and colour was leeching from the denim fabric of the sky. The movie I’d just seen was American Beauty and I’d spent time in the darkness wincing at the truth about myself and my marriage that I had somehow submerged beneath the surface of work and achievement and dutifulness.
I stood uncertain in the street feeling a long way from home and with the need to do something welling in me like panic. And then it struck me that I didn’t know what to do or even what home was anymore. Not really. I could see the kids playing on the floor in front of the television, the furniture, the garden; the comfort of known things spread before me like a gift to which I could always return. But then there was my wife with her sad eyes and observations stained with disappointment, her angry accumulation of lists and things and places for everything. I remembered that before I came here I would escape from her and plan the study tour of America in fine detail so I could fee l some control over my life, so I could apply order to growing uncertainty of where I fit.
Now I was where I had planned to be and the only place that was left to go was home. There were to be no more easy decisions about airline schedules or early morning pickups; no more hotel beds turned back at night or the respectful handshake of strangers. I was in the movie, I was returning to a place where there was no time to watch the miracle of leaves dancing.
Some Nebraskan college students walked ahead of me up the street. They were laughing about something. Their heads were full of themselves and their cleverness and they had an air of immortality. They were full of fries and philosophy and Friday nights and they thought that death comes only once.
I looked at my watch and made the now automatic calculation of Australian time. They are all still asleep, I thought, but in a few hours they will wake up. It comforted me, the thought of my children dreaming. And then I realised that I had just woken up too but that I could not go to sleep again.
About five years ago I was staying at this bad hotel on the edge of Denver. It was a cheap hotel so I should have expected it to be bad. Like my father says, “You always get what you pay for” which is true except, when it comes to hotels, I think the benchmark should be different. All hotels should be good and after that, if you pay more, it should just get better. But this was a bad hotel. I booked a smoking room and they gave me a non-smoking room. “Nothing else available,” they said. “Just smoke in there, man. And leave the window open.” So I did and I got cold and kept waiting for the smoke alarm to go off or someone to come in and bust me.
There was one good thing though; you could see the Rockies from my window. I rang home all the way to Australia and I told my wife and kids that I can see the Rockies from my window but the kids were too young to get it and my wife sounded like she wasn’t really that interested. Like she did about everything these days. I wished I hadn’t wasted that picture of the Rockies on her; it spoiled it somehow.
Anyway, soon after that I went to the bar in the hotel. I ordered a Millers Draught because it was American beer and I was having my first night in America. There was one other guy at the bar and no one else even in the lounge seats. After a couple of Millers I felt like talking to him. I had an American beer and I wanted to talk to an American. But I couldn’t think of anything to say and he didn’t even look my way like he was not interested in knowing who I was or what I was doing there.
Then I heard this laughing and talking and when I looked to the foyer I could see a group of Indians in full traditional dress walking out of the hotel. “Shit,” I thought, “I really am in America.” One of the Indians wore a full feather headdress so I figured he was the chief. Then I remembered seeing a poster about a Pow Wow going on in town. I wanted to know what that was all about.
I turned to the silent man at the bar. “Do you know what that’s all about?” I asked. He didn’t even look at the foyer or me. “Just some Indian shit,” he said. It wasn’t much of a start but it got the ball rolling. Soon we were talking pretty easily. When he found I was from Australia, he said with some animation, “Did you know that Australia has more marsupials than any other country on Earth?” The fact seemed to cheer him up for some reason. “We’ve only got one,” he laughs. “A fucking possum!”
He is 48 years old; he’s been a railway inspector for a quarter of a century. “It’s all I know, Man,” he tells me. Lost the sight in one eye in ’84 and had to give up painting. The inspector’s son was the best pitcher in Trenton, Nebraska, won a scholarship to Dodge City, Kansas but gave it up for love and came home to his dad while his girlfriend studied to be a mortician. And his daughter, who was Miss Hometown Queen, got in a car crash that left her with scars and a bad neck. Now she works as a dental assistant. “I didn’t know Australia fought in Vietnam,” he says later.
There was television on the wall and the news was on. It showed a bomb blast somewhere and there were bodies strewn over this road near a market. The American said to me, “What do you look at when you see a dead body on TV or in the newspaper or somewhere?” I really tried to think about that but I was getting drunk and I told him I didn’t know where I looked. “You gotta look somewhere,” he said and I said I guessed so but somehow I couldn’t remember where I looked, at the blood, I suppose. “I always look at their socks,” he said.
He went silent for a while. Then he looked at me over his beer and he laughed a bit. “Now why the fuck would I look at their socks?” He seemed genuinely interested in this. I went to say something but he interrupted and said, “You know, it just seems such a dumb thing to do on the day you’re gonna die. Put on your socks. Why the fuck would you even care!”
“They don’t know they are going to die,” I offered. He looked at me with a faint air of contempt. “I fuckin’ know that,” he said. “But we’re are all fuckin’ dying. It’s the socks I don’t get. It’s all the fuckin’ little things like socks.” Later he said he had to make a phone call. I waited for about half an hour but he didn’t come back so I went up to my room.
I was drunk and hungry now but I was tired too; the flight was catching up on me. I threw my clothes on the floor and climbed into bed in my underpants. The sheets were cool. There was a fight going on in the car park and I thought how wonderful it was that beyond my curtain lay the snow-capped Rockies and the great big country of America. Then I missed my family and wished my wife would cheer up a bit. I wondered why she was always sad lately and I felt this little knot of fear in my stomach. Then I realised I still had my socks on; I took them off and soon I was asleep.
In the middle of the morning I make my way alone to a place called Chinaman’s Pool, not far from where I am staying for the holiday. About a hundred years ago, this permanent pool was the mainstay of the town’s water supply and Aboriginal people made money by carrying it in heavy buckets to a tank in the main street. The small stretch of water got its name from the large shoulder yokes, like those of the Chinese, which straddled the dark backs of the carriers.
I did not grow up in this area of the river but a couple of kilometres further east. There is no doubt that the shady white gums, the paperbark trees and the green, peaceful water are beautiful. But I feel I am in a strange place; that this is not my river but the river of the town kids. My part of the river was wider and scattered with small islands. We named each part and knew a story about every bank and stream.
It strikes me that this was always the way for the first people of this land. The river stretches more than 500 kilometres inland and each tribe called just a small part of it home. To the Ingaada people, here near the mouth of the river, it was Kow Win Wardo but just 70 kilometres away the wilder circumcised and scarred tribes had their own names.
Now they are all gone and the river is become one river but empty of their ancient songs and laughter.
Later, I take my kids to my part of the river. It is still flowing but shallow. Soon it will return to sand until the next cyclonic rain arrives. They wrestle and run after each other in the clear stream. “Are you watching, Dad?” they yell. I am watching. I watch the trees stretched like a familiar garland along the grassy banks unchanged in all this time. And there’s the crossing where we boys stripped off one night and swam with strange exhilaration and a kind of moonlight madness. That’s the island which we lit up with matches and watched disappear in a tall conflagration like a Viking funeral. And over there, a girl called Susan and I kissed and tried to make love but both of us too young and clumsy. Later she sent me a letter, “I miss you.” About a kilometre downstream we boys camped most weekends and carved our names on pieces of driftwood and whispered naïve dreams from our sleeping bags. We heard our words float up into the night sky with embers from the dying fire.
As I watch, three boys appear on the banks. They are riding bikes and they look at us as if we have spoiled something. I wish they would come down and talk to us, tell me what they are doing. I know they will tell me they are bored and that there is nothing to do in this town and one day we are all going to leave for the city. As I did before them and muttering the same old small town mantra. One of them says something and points east. They disappear. So many have disappeared now.
Suddenly my daughter is beside me and looking up at me intently. Maybe she can see something in my face that wasn’t there before. Anyway, it’s as if she has guessed what I am thinking. “Is it still the same as when you were a kid, Dad?” she asks. I wonder then if she will come back to this place one day and remember her brother and me in the gentle autumn sun, how the river stones glistened in the light and small birds whistled in hiding. And even as I wonder this I am struck by the certainty of it. She will remember me. And the river will remember me too and the Ingaada people and Susan and some naked boys laughing and all the voices lost to the sky.
“Well,” I say but smiling now, “the water changes but the river is always the same.”
He watches the rain. It is running down the window. He is thinking of a woman who is far away. He cannot remember ever thinking about anyone for as long as he thinks about this girl. Even so, his thoughts are like a silent movie; images without feeling or soundtrack. He is practicing being neutral. The phone rings. It is his ex-wife. She wants to change a night with the kids. “It’s fine,” he says.
She is apologising. “I’ll make it up to you.” He tells her again that it is OK; he had no plans for the night she wants to change. “I’ll take them an extra night next week,” she says. Then she is gone again and he returns to the window.
He wonders if his wife has a lover yet. Once the thought would have made him apprehensive, reignited the smouldering ash of his emotions after the affair. Something inside him has changed though. For the first time he imagines his wife happy with another man and there is a tiny feeling somewhere inside that he wants this. That he wants her to be happy again. “Weird,” he mutters to the emptiness but finds himself smiling. Part of that smile is for her, a bigger part for the fact of not feeling anything else; no fear, no anger, no hurt. It has been a long time since he felt so removed from her; felt that she cannot touch him anymore.
He reaches for his coffee, holds the mug in his palm feeling the warmth in his fingers. It strikes him dully that he did love his wife for a long time and that the feeling has gone; not even replaced with something close to love. It has just gone.
But where does love go? Not the love for ourselves but the love we feel for others. It fills our hearts then quickly or slowly it goes away. He had once read somewhere that the love we feel defines us more than the love we receive. He thinks about this for a while. Where love goes seems an unanswerable question and a little dangerous. He finds it strange that he has never thought of it before.
The woman occupying his thoughts spoke of love once or twice. It is a big word, she said. They were lying together on a Friday afternoon in Melbourne. Too big for this strange thing between the two of them, she meant. And he knew this was right in a way, in the normal way of the world. But something about love is small too, he thought, easily given, easily lost. His wife said to him once, “I love you but I’m not in love with you.” The thought of this makes him turn from the window.
He mentally shifts away from this time; this time he tells no one about. Increasingly he will not even tell himself that story. But now he remembers that at the time of the affair, he never once hated his wife; not even her lover. He thought he understood love then; that it can be a cruel, spoiling thing and yet almost impossible to resist. He had, early in their relationship, loved his wife so much that it had made him crazy at times. And then it made him calm and good. But in a long, dangerous, despairing drive South on the day he found out about the affair it was the knowledge of the unassailable nature of love that almost destroyed him.
He is a lot of things but he is rarely dishonest with himself. He knows that somewhere in the morass of their feelings for each other, he had stopped being someone his wife needed. He knew it then and he spent four wasted years trying to discover the key again. He avoids thinking about that time now because he did not like what he remained long after her love for another man had gone. And he does not want to be that person again, lost to himself.
He switches his mind to the sad-eyed lady thousands of miles away. He thinks about her hands. He remembers her crooked smile and the way she looks up at him sometimes with a look he can’t fathom for meaning. She is beautiful and she does not believe she is beautiful. Lying in bed in the late afternoon he had stroked her bare breast and shoulder and listened to her talking. He was filled with the wonder of another human being, so mysterious, like a planet. It made him believe in the beauty of the world again.
“Shit,” he murmurs and turns up the music. “You are a sentimental fool.” But he knows that he has never been sentimental. Inside him there is a faint stirring. His heart is making room for someone else. He is not altogether happy about this; sometimes feels nervous, sometimes sick. But he knows it is happening.
The rain keeps pouring. He feels uneasy, has felt uneasy for weeks. Part of him knows they will meet again, part of him believes this will never happen. There is a rumble in the distance. He holds his palm against the cool glass of the window. Somewhere a car swishes along the flooded highway and he wonders where it is going.
Colin turns the page of the old photograph album and suddenly there is Louise smiling at me again from twenty years ago. I remember that party. In the background my younger sister is standing with my girlfriend of that time and they are watching Louise and the man with the camera with amusement. Louise’s boyfriend, Mike, is there, too; partly obscured and looking at something out of shot. Everyone is laughing.
“Hell,” I say. “She was really beautiful, wasn’t she.”
“We all were,” Colin looks at me closely and adds, “What ever happened to your cousin Louise?”
I can feel him looking at me.
“Oh, she’s married with a kid. I saw her about three years ago when I was at a conference in Adelaide.”
I have known Colin since we were both twelve. “You and her were pretty close for cousins,” he says with forced nonchalance. I look up. So this is what he wants to know after all this time.
I look at the photograph. “Yeah,” I say. “You know, Colin, I think I was secretly in love with Louise for a while.”
Colin snorts but not unkindly. “Shit, mate, everyone thought you were in love with each other.”
The years blur. I am sitting in the kitchen of my home with my fourteen-year-old cousin. I am sixteen. It is after midnight and we are the only ones awake. We are talking about life and love and music and dreams. We talk like this at every chance we get. She is on holidays with us from the other side of Australia. When she leaves I go to my bedroom and lie there feeling this deep hollowness grow inside me and it is the first time that I miss someone. For a while we send each other clever, sentimental letters and then we stop.
Four years later we are both back in the little town. I am home from completing university; she is about to start her studies in Adelaide. I have become witty and cynical; she even more gentle and idealistic than before. But something deeper has also changed. We still hang out but now we clash. I hate her faith in everything; she is hurt by my careless dismissal of everything she cares about. One night we are playing pool in the local hotel. She walks up to me and looks me in the eyes saying softly so only we can hear, “Why do I hate you when I’m sober and love you when I’m drunk?”
There will be many little moments like this over that brief summer. I remember the tiniest things. Like watching movies at the Drive In, six of us packed into Colin’s car, she in the front and me in the back. I say, “Can you move your head a bit, Louise, so I can see?”
“Absolutely!” she laughs.
“Louise, can I have a lick of your ice-cream?
“Can I have a kiss, Louise?”
She turns awkwardly in her seat and leans her cheek towards me. “Absolutely” Now her tone is mockingly seductive. For the first and only time I kiss her. I do it quickly and everyone laughs.
But mostly we annoy each other and eventually become overly tender to the most innocent comments of the other. On the day she is to leave we are sitting in my car and trying to find the words for goodbye. We are not being very successful and our jokes fall flat. I desperately want her to leave and yet I can’t bear the thought of it. But I do not show this.
“Say hello to your mum and dad for me,” I say. Then I mention her little sister, “And tell Pippa not to grow…” I stop quickly but it is too late. The colour rushes to Louise’s face, so sensitive has she become to even my silences. There are tears in her eyes. Her voice is soaked with anger and hurt, “Tell her not to grow up like me! That’s what you were going to say, weren’t you?” I sit there mutely, staring ahead and feeling suddenly like I will throw up, like I have just killed some animal. “Weren’t you?” Louise chokes into silence, opens the car door and rushes away into a life that is mostly a mystery to me.
The album of photographs is still lying there. I want to ask Colin, “Do you really think she loved me?” But he turns the page and says, “Any chance of another tea, mate? This one’s gone cold.”