Quills (5 of 10)
My parents separated when I was thirteen, divorced when I was fifteen and I met Max when I was sixteen. Naturally I fell in love with him, my sense of partnership left warped and unreadable by my family’s failure, his were very much still together, but it was not out of jealousy that I would watch them at his soccer games every week, it was the little things, forever the little things. A shy smile or subtle kiss on a cold temple, these things were never in vain, their love was never without brilliant and soft consequence. I imagined them saying grace before dinner, holding hands with not one eye slyly open. My family was not at the soccer games, my family was overrun with faults that appeared to me like artful predators. My Dad moved out and tried to see me once every week, at the time I noticed Max he and I were doing things like going for ice-cream, quaint outings where we didn’t talk parent-to-offspring, he’d ask me what I thought of the American political system. He liked having an intelligent daughter, I hated him because to me it was clear we were a ‘broken family’ only because he just hadn’t loved my mother enough. At sixteen it was obvious to me that it was impossible not to love someone if they threw all of their love for you in your face, bombarded you with it on a daily basis. Why didn’t you smother her with it? I asked him silent and earnest, why couldn’t you have drowned her in it?
My mother had slept with a guy she worked with at the biomedical lab. I didn’t know that then. It’s funny how parents use a guise of protection when they just don’t want you to hate them, as if the judgement of an adolescent is that much worse than their own of themselves. Though, thinking of the things I would have spat at her, the screws I would have left to gnaw at her skin while she lay in bed at night, I can understand it. That doesn’t make it any better, the indifference she invoked in me to have towards my father. Sometimes he would ask how school was, if the quiet between us had built to an ear-ringing level. I never did tell him about Max though, I thought him too witless to understand the bones of love.
Max was in my biology class, I’d call him fondant-features in my head, sugared-almond shoulders. I’d come up with names for his muscles. Max’s Lovely Latissimus. Pleasing Pectorals. Radiant Rhomboideus. His mouth was full of Ideal Incisors and Exquisite Eye-Teeth. I wanted to lie with him like my mother had with the guy from the lab. I wanted to kiss the insides of his wrists. I had always been one to fall hard or not at all, we became friends when I was seventeen, after a year of contemplating names for every cell of visible skin he had. He was placed next to me in advanced English, we both loved War And Peace and thought Lolita was overdone. I stopped giving names to his appendages and instead wore his single-syllable like a second skin on my own, slippery and iridescent. I got asked out twenty-four times that year and was named queen at our end of year formal, though I didn’t go. Max thought the whole idea was stupid so we watched movies at his place instead. There was triumph but also a a sense of inertia. Of course I wished he’d have asked me, I had been thinking the whole year I would wear a dress that matched his eyes, they were this mottled blue like sea-glass. Behind my ribs I knew he wouldn’t, where my languid heart was, I knew there surely he wouldn’t. He got asked out at least thirty times that year and always denied the invitations, sweetly and demurely stating he wanted to focus on his studies, not women, or girls blooming into women in front of his very eyes. I fantasised that he would make an exception, just for an evening, and I could wear a dress like that of an exotic fish. It was not disappointment that I walked hand-in-hand with to his door on the appointed night, though. That place behind my ribs was throbbing completely out-of-character and I stared down at my foreign heart in anxious surprise. Frightened as I was that he might hear the thrum of my jumpy love, my excitement prevailed, I would have run but I hoped to keep my face intact.
We watched three cult films I had never heard of and I spilled the mulled wine his mother had made us all over his duvet. We didn’t even have dinner with his parents so I didn’t get to witness their affectionate banter as I had imagined it. We ate crackers and kept quiet, save for the moments he would jump to change the film. In those moments I half-expected, all of my naive hope rising to my eyes, him to turn to me, creating folds in the blankets like the ones next to his mouth when he smiled, take me. I was yet to be stolen, I wanted him to be named the thief. Always, my wishes abandoned me. Left me cold on my side.
It was the first time I slept in his bed though I didn’t really sleep, his breathing kept me awake, his skin. I left in the morning, the slight hollows underneath my eyes like bruises, in love and stung.
School ended but I was fated to follow him. We moved together from our hollow suburban existence, dream-less in its extreme normality, seven hours north. Both placed in the fifth percentile based on our end-of-year exams, we studied at the same prestigious university and lived together in a sparse but bright apartment ten minutes from campus. I thought it would happen then, in truth I thought it would happen each and every time we were alone. Maybe we’d buy a bottle of five dollar wine and in the collapse of a drunk evening, his hand would stray to my face, to that curve where my jaw-line met my neck. My love for him was like welts on my insides. Instead of me, the abundance of me, he began dating. A myriad of girls suddenly wanted to be my friend and know what he liked for breakfast, and I took notes on them. I would lose and gain weight depending on whatever girl he fancied at the time. I cut my hair short, coloured it red, then blonde, started wearing high heels, wore no shoes at all, started smoking cigarettes. But just as suddenly as he’d started, he abruptly stopped.
I need to focus on my studies, he said.
I need to quit smoking, I said.
We grew up like that. Percipient and astute youth. The envy of most. I grew with a sorrow so sterilized it offended even my tear ducts. I never once cried over his lack of affection for me, with my own marbled amber eyes and coffee-coloured skin, I tended to keep myself pre-occupied, mostly in secret. Men were easy, Max was not. We were in our twenties, shimmering at our perimeters, everything we dreamed just seemed to settle into our forming cracks and creases. Success was decadent and slovenly to us, we were dripping with it. Money came and kept on coming, the completion of our degrees (both with honours) meant no break for us, life was indeed the break. We were arrogant with ease. By the time we both turned thirty, forty days between our birthdays, we were so drugged up on wealth and intelligence we barely noticed. I was so decadently soused in him I thought the sound of his voice was my own at times. We turned thirty. We turned thirty and it happened.
We were sitting in our lounge, still living together, although now in a spacious loft-style apartment that had come into fashion so willingly, slowly immersing ourselves in an expensive roséwhile the sun was sucked from the sky behind us. He rested his elbows on his knees for a minute or so, pushed himself up to cross the room and sit next to me, I was none-the-wiser, after living together for over ten years I had stopped counting the hours since he had last touched me. I touched my head to his shoulder and he gently placed a trembling hand on my knee.
Rita? He whispered, barely enunciating the clicking ‘T’ sound. Reeda, he said, while I stared, transfixed, at the almond-hued hand almost reaching my thigh.
Do you know what HIV is?
And it all came out. He was going to die because he loved men, had loved men since before he met me, had slept with at least sixty with me somewhere within the same walls. The word agony probably doesn’t convey well enough what his confession imbued in me. My emotions then not so ungainly that I betrayed myself completely, I didn’t tell him of my voluminous infatuation. He knew. He must of known. Instead I left, like the complete fool I was and the awful lover I had been, to so many men, I stood, picked my bag up from the shag carpeting and left.
I forgot about all of my belongings, everything I owned was him, everything I touched with Max was in fact Max himself, everywhere, all over everything. I had done so well for myself in my career, I bought new things. Brilliant, shiny things that to me appeared dull. In truth, they did not appear as anything. I was blind to every normality and especially every beauty. I was thirty and a fraud, my love had spat in my face, my emotions were liars. Dirtied with age and sour with wasted time, I found anger eventually, it smothered the sad, I bathed in the heat of indignation. I was overlooked by the one human I had adored most of my life because women were passé.
And so it went, as it does, time will fail you, everyone, in the end. The days that build to weeks that just as suddenly grow into months and years. As adults we ask for the date and exclaim ‘Oh! This year is going so fast, isn’t it?’ And everybody agrees, have you ever heard somebody disagree to the veiled idea that a minute is no longer the same length that it was last year? The year before that? In my thirties, after so many frivolous hours spent, I was angling for the sense of time a child might have, but it wasn’t to be. I was growing old, I could touch my fingers to my face and feel where the skin was toughening, at times like this I blamed Max, I felt that my unrequited love and subsequent despondency was the cause for the lines, the flawed finish. His confession had sobered the hazy glow that my form had been bathed in. He had taken the sun away and there was no place for the moisture to go anymore, and no steam to be seen from its rising.
Him and all his boys. All of his men. The anger at masculinity pelted my skin so deftly and without compromise that it began to bleed underneath, so did my figure and appearance become plainer, less feminine. For once though I did not hold hope like an hour-glass I could just turn over again. At least he gave me that.
But time, it went. It will always go.
The year I turned sixty-four, I was shopping for last minute Christmas Dinner supplies, I had a family. A husband I was genuinely fond of and three children, all three coming home from their new residences across the world. I was revelling in the notion that our family home was a ‘safe-zone’, a spot to return to, a tree in a game of tag that you only had to be touching to be immune, I had never been such a seasonal person before family. I had not been much of a person at all, really. I can’t say much for the moment when a child is placed into your arms though, your child. There was not that spark or jolt of sudden immeasurable and heady love that you might read about. There was always a timid affection but the bonds strengthen only with time to produce that sensation of new appendages, wandering elsewhere, that you must care for. I was happy, I had been happy for quite some time, routine and genuine warmth will do that do you, if you let it. And so it was that I was musing over my clean and bright life when I glanced across from my cart to see a frame so familiar to me, it’s new lilting structure and skeletal appearance didn’t defer me from recognising the owner.
His frightened body shook with the effort it took to reach for some non-descript package. My love, oh my love. His glowing skin had been startled into a dramatic degradation, his painfully thin wrists were the colour of used cigarette filters. The sleeve of his baggy overcoat riding up slightly to expose the legions on his forearms. It was a sick performance for a forlorn audience who could not turn away. My love was death, my love was expiration in its most fearsome form. My love was dusky with his dwindling viability. My love was here, here on the same stretch of flooring. In truth, with all his disease and all his weakness, I would have still taken him, I would have enveloped him in my own well-aged skin. I would have kept his warmth inside for his encounter with death.
I left my shopping where it lay in the cart, I left my aching past, I turned and left part of myself with him.
It was an odd Christmas that year, my children had partners, each of them. My children were sick from gorging themselves on the heady love I had once experienced, but not had reciprocated. Their happiness was reminiscent of their youth, the extremes of it. Toddler-grins, the squirming of limbs over a slight smile, a finger pushing hair from their faces. They were in ecstasy for a brief touch, a brilliant acknowledgement. There was a well-orchestrated and rich ambience that I appreciated while I watched. My happiness was not something to be affected by some small man or some small thing he did to me when I was indeed small. My husband watched me laying the table and placed a hand on the small of my back, his eyes meeting mine in recognition. A sweetness at the back of my mouth, this was my tidy bliss now.
Because it’s the little things, forever the little things.