"Of course Mel and Cass are coming to dinner too."
Of course. Yes, of course. There ought to be a worldwide ban on the phrase "Of course". Is there any other way to combine two harmless words into such an irritating statement? So flippant. Flagrant. It's a way of saying that while the truth of things is obvious to you, it apparently isn't obvious to me, the listener, the numpty in the room. I am simply not grasping that which is plain for other to see.
"As you know" is a close runner-up, but it mostly scores points for absolute pointlessness. If I already know, then why even say it? Pointless, but at least there are no implications being made about my failure to perceive things that are plain and simple. In fact, it is almost a compliment — how nice it is to have people assume that I know such things already! They have such faith in me. There are no aspersions being cast upon me, just a fairly harmless wasting of my time. Perhaps there is a hint that my time is therefore not worth much at all, so casually is it wasted away with empty phrases, but that's a fairly long bow to draw.
It's a whole extra word too. It lacks the offensive efficiency of "Of course".
Not to mention "It goes without saying"! Not only do both of us already know, but apparently the whole world knows! And yet here we are, letting the seconds of our life slip by as you say it, with a snarky preface to boot. Oh, one might argue that it could bear saying anyway, just to be sure. But if you have such doubts, if you can't be sure it doesn't need to be said, then in what sense does it go without saying? Riddle me that one. But still, just as with "As you know", it's too general a statement to be taken personally, and it loses big points for being so tedious. A whole four words, six syllables! Nothing could compete with the compactness, the elegant razor-like incisiveness of "Of course".
First against the wall in my New World Order will be all those who say "Of course" in polite conversation.
So Mel and Cass were coming to dinner. Of course. But who cares about of course, really. It just made me nervous, the waiting, the time before it all started. It was only dinner, they were all friends, so why be nervous? Oh, it's only natural. The heightened senses, the cold skin that prickles to a touch — even to a little thing like a stupid useless phrase that means nothing at all to anyone. Or rather than being only natural, I should say it's only me. Jen, on the other hand, couldn't have looked calmer.
Really, it was good news, to have Cass and Mel coming. That made eight of us — Jen & me, Richard & Judith, Ben & Jordan, and now Mel & Cass. How simple and symmetric, our little cast of dramatis personæ:
Jen — Jennifer Yards, née Little:
My wife. A schoolteacher-turned-district school administrator, who loves children and yours truly, but after many years spent with both, now seems to mostly love them from afar. Said number of years being 16 and 11 respectively. She shall appear in the scenes below as a gracefully early-middle-aged brunette, dressed stylishly (as always) in a loose, flowing dress of many gossamer-thin layers, the true shape of which is impossible to discern.
Myself — Gordon Yards:
Suburban man of the 21st century, also a schoolteacher. Neat & tidy yet nondescript in attire, chin two days shy of clean-shaven and hair one month beyond scruffy. Eyes that give the impression of having gone at least one decade without a really good sleep.
Richard — Richard Lowe:
A slightly shorter, slightly younger, very much cheerier version of Gordon Yards. The two have been close friends since university, when they discovered that being around each other was comfortable and easy, a low-effort friendship of calm pleasantness. Though neither of them knows the other's birthdate or middle name, they are silently appreciative of each other's company and occasional jokes. He is partner to Judith, father to an adorable pre-verbal girl, and public servant of some obscure title.
Lili — Lili Terzian:
Long-time partner of Richard, a graceful and ghostly-pale Armenian migrant, now a naturalised Brisbanite and Armenian translator. She gives the impression of being a female clone of Richard, and the two of them together create for Gordon an unsettling crazy-mirror effect, in which he cannot tell whether his best friend is the original or the slightly distorted copy. This becomes even worse when she is carrying their daughter, who looks so much like them both that Gordon can't pick her up without imagining that he has suddenly become a giant who can perch a grown adult on his hip.
Ben — Benjamin Volobueva:
A huge egg-shaped man, whose middle section seems at all times to be only one extra chortle away from popping the buttons off his shirt. His impish smile and schoolboy curiosity towards all things make him impossible to dislike, though his tireless charm tends to wear people down a bit, until he moves on to his next favourite person of the evening. He is forever nudging his wife Jordan with conspiratorial looks, which typically elicits from her a little smile and a stroke of her soft hand along his knee or forearm.
Jordan — Jordan Volobueva, née Grace:
A young GP, wife of Ben, dark cinnamon-coloured, who is typically seen sitting motionless, wordless, with eyes flicking mechanically back and forth between the faces of other people as they speak to each other. When spoken to, she momentarily looks worried and dazed, as if being woken from a dream and asked to solve a maths problem. This endears her to all who know her. She dresses almost exclusively in various textures of black (to match her hair), and tonight shall be no exception.
Mel — Melissa Cranston:
Only met by Gordon twice before, Mel is a paediatric nurse who has been in several of Jen's Child Psychology & Development courses over the past 18 months. Jen talks about her often, telling anecdotes about her crude sense of humour and brutal honesty in all things. Through her hair, garb, and tattoos she telegraphs her lesbianism so loudly it is almost comical, and one gets the impression that her family must be frighteningly conservative for her to be so brash.
Cass — Cassandra Elsie:
Sapphic partner of Mel, who is often mistaken for Mel's more conventional upper-middle-class sister, the one who married a stockbroker and is raising a few kids in Ascot or somewhere. She seems to always be entirely devoted to whatever conversation she is currently a part of, and she waits with barely-contained tension for any sentence that is currently being uttered to come to its thrilling conclusion.
¤ ¤ ¤
Six PM found us in the kitchen, Jen and me. She was at the stove, tending to her famous fennel and carrot soup, making minute adjustments with salt, chilli flakes, cumin, etc. The day's last ebbs of sunlight were drifting through the window, between the fronds of the ferns hanging in their baskets outside. They swung and rotated slightly in the evening breeze, and Jen was all illuminated in dappled tangerine tones.
As she stood silently behind me I was working at the long bench, just beginning to notice a few cool spots of sweat coalescing between my shoulder blades, my heart rate sitting at a light jog for the past 45 minutes — my state of ‘contained panic’, as Jen calls it.
As usual I had overdone it, feeling the need to exceed the imaginary expectations I had set at our last dinner. Could anyone but me even remember the racks of lamb and crème caramel of two months ago? No matter, I was on a mission to leave that previous offering in the dust tonight. So I stood working the crank on my pasta machine, rolling out floury handfuls of soft fettuccine, laying them gently in a heap upon a tray. I had flatbread dough that had been developing in the fridge since Wednesday, a kind of semi-liquid mass that could be handled only on a bed of baker’s flour, coaxed into rough discs and then gingerly lifted into the frypan one-by-one. I had apple & pumpkin seed hummus, roasted beetroot dip, and tzatziki with cucumbers and mint from our own garden. I had a water bath maintained between 51 and 52 degrees in the slow cooker, with marinated scallops floating in their vacuum-sealed bags alongside the dangling thermostat probe. (Who says you need to spend hundreds for a proper sous-vide setup?) They would soon join the fettucine and the pan of tomato sauce on the stove, for a marinara that (if all went to plan) would just about fall apart in the mouth. In the oven I had a whole turkey roasting in a dish of milk, with star anise and sage leaves bobbing about alongside a few lemon quarters.
The dessert was still an outstanding agendum, sitting in scattered pieces (pastry dough, chilled pecan filling, chocolate shavings in a bowl) that needed assembly at the last possible minute for best effect. And as always, the home-pickled ginger for between courses, though I’ve always had my doubts about whether ‘cleansing the palate’ has any basis in reality.
I had a system of constant movement in place — working the pasta machine, stretching out the flatbread dough, stirring the sauce, flipping the flatbread, spooning the milk over the turkey, watching the meat thermometer, checking the brownness of the bread, watching the clock. Always a high-wire act that feels like a constant process of keeping disaster at bay. Churchill said that there is nothing more exciting that being shot at, without coming to any harm; Jen might say I feel a similar way about cooking. ‘Contained panic’ — it was Jen’s phrase, but I felt a little proud each time she said it.
Jen is always an important part of the panic, though. She provides the calm. I don't know whether she knows it, but at times like these I struggle to go more than 30 seconds without looking over my shoulder at her — standing there with one foot resting on curled-up toes behind the other, swaying slightly to some internal rhythm she keeps, the last sips of orange daylight playing upon her shoulder. Maybe pulling something out of the dishwasher, maybe reaching into a low cupboard by twisting her legs beneath her in that easy way she does, maybe checking her phone. On my own, without her nearby, I won't cook anything more exciting than soup. Can’t, really. Not to say that soup isn't exciting — people rave, in the truly literal sense, about Jen's fennel and carrot soup.
So that's how our labour was divided: I provided the appetisers, mains, and dessert; she provided the calm and the soup. Oh, and the steamed vegetables, to go with the turkey.
¤ ¤ ¤
Our kitchen is long and narrow, with cupboards up to the ceiling on each side. The little sliding window at the far end is like a gunsight when seen from the narrow doorway, and the room is aimed dead-on at the tufted head of the palm tree that stands slightly askew in the school playground at the end of the street. The room is the house’s hip pocket, where things tend to collect and sit idly, alongside but separate from everything else. Warmly enclosed. I was leaning on the fridge, staring at the orange light on the oven, feeling the beginnings of the warmth.
By now things were moving along smoothly. Jen had opened the wine and the appetisers were out, so my anxiety had started to loosen off — the anxiety that precedes a ride, a show, a contest in which anything could happen. Now the thing was in motion and nothing could happen except for what was actually happening. I could hear Ben's rascally laughter around the corner, and I had heard but not retained the joke that Lili had said immediately beforehand. She always has a joke, usually something a little abstract, about how odd we Australians still seem to her. Something like, "You will say to each other how it is so hot today, but to a foreigner you'll only go on about how hot it was last month, or last year! You need not be so macho about your weather!"
It was nice to listen to everyone, or rather just to hear them. To hear is passive. There is a freedom in being separate from people. To be surrounded by them, to share in their easy talk, to be soothed by voices and laughter, but to have no obligation to insert oneself into it. It's like being weightless. It’s the best kind of music.
In addition to that, there was actual music too. I had put together a playlist for the evening, full of tracks that would be unobtrusive without being completely dull. Things like Nick Drake, Jon Hopkins, Angel Olsen, Stevie Wonder & Aretha, Fiona Apple, even Grouper’s slightly less depressing stuff. A couple of gag tracks from people like Madvillainy and Tom Waits too, for people to chuckle at if they were paying enough attention. It seemed to be only me who was listening, though.
The orange light went out with a slight tick, and I pushed myself off the fridge so I could open it and pull out the tray of chilled pecan tarts. I slid them into the oven and it softly roared in my face, then Richard stepped around the corner into the doorway. We exchanged our little smiles, and he went over to the wine bottle as I checked my watch — the tarts would take about 25 minutes, then 10 minutes to rest, so we had to get a move on with the mains if we wanted to eat them while they were warm.
"Haven't seen you in ages, eh?"
"Yeah, I know, what's been happening?”
"Nothing at all."
"Just the usual."
"Yeah, we should use our weekends better. Go bushwalking or something."
We each leaned against the counters on opposite sides of the narrow room, shoes almost touching at the halfway point.
"Not the best time of year for it."
"Yeah, much better for sleeping in."
"Why don't we go to the movies one night?"
"Anything you want to see?"
"Not sure, eh. You?"
"I'll have to look."
And on we went like this. In a winding way we came back to a conversation from before, when I called to invite him around, almost a week ago now.
"I just don't know how to feel about it."
"She's becoming such a staunch social determinist."
"Hoo boy, that's exactly the last thing you need."
"Heh. Heh. Don't let her into a room with your dad."
"Oh man, I'm dreading the day."
"Surely social determinism is the lamest form of determinism. I mean, go hard or go home. Either be a Newtonian or a dualist, why fuck around?"
"Ah, but even Einstein was an agnostic!"
"True. Yes. Let us not forget ourselves. You are a wise man."
Lili swung into the doorway. She held onto the frame with an outstretched arm and hung across the opening, listing forwards and back a in a small arc. Through the hanging veil of her hair she gave Richard a mock-ravishing look, as if they had paused in the middle of a fiery tango. He raised his eyebrow in mock seduction. I felt oddly intrusive in their little wordless joke. She laughed her silent little laugh and looked at me kindly.
"You are too kind to have us in your home again!"
"And you are too kind to be here, madam."
She bowed to me, laughed again, and went to put her arm over Richard's shoulders.
"Are you two men saying nasty things about us in here?"
"No, no, just standing around."
"Talking about manly things, like tanks and how to make a good shave?"
"Heh. Heh. Yes, precisely, dead on."
"Well, why don't you come and stand around with the rest of us. You're not tied to the kitchen, Gordon?"
I checked my watch again.
"Not for now."
Lili sashayed off, and we two watched her go, then after a moment, we followed. Richard with a smile of contentment, me with the beginnings of the same.
¤ ¤ ¤
Cass was getting warmed up with her anecdotes. For a long while she had been very polite and unimposing, but now it seemed like she was forgetting herself. She was a little red in the face, her gestures were becoming broad, and her disinhibition allowed us to feel that we had permission to let go of ourselves a little as well. I suppose that’s the purpose of alcohol, and she was making a great case for its advantages.
"Well we were only together for a couple of months and then she suddenly took this job on Thursday Island. Just totally spur of the moment."
"Doesn’t it just show how deep our bond really is, though, because I knew you would wait for me!"
Cass rolled her eyes almost out of their sockets as Mel grinned to herself and poured a little more wine. We others took the opportunity to share looks of appreciation for the little spectacle we were seeing.
"And like I was being this boring old lady just doing my job, going home, watching TV, and she was pulling people out of, well … Haha, go on, tell them!"
"Well we had this patient called Pat, everyone called him Fat Pat, and one day I said to him, 'Pat, if you don’t start exercising you’re going to fall down dead one day soon.' So later that day he gets out of bed and starts walking up and down the hospital stairs, and he fell down and died."
We all laughed in an outburst of pent-up anticipation. Then we realized what we had heard and quickly pulled ourselves back, like sprinters at a false start. Cass was undeterred.
"Yeah yeah and tell them what you did with him!"
"Oh darling, no, you tell it better." She said this with mock tones of adoration that Cass seemed not to notice.
"They put him in the fridge and then they couldn’t get him out! He like got swollen and they couldn’t get him back out through the door! So then they got the maintenance guys…"
"From the next island!"
"From the next island, and they had to dismantle the whole fridge! And they put him in the world’s biggest coffin, his cousin or someone like that made it specially for him out of like old weatherboards and it’s about the size of Noah’s Ark, and they get to the funeral and there’s a huge storm, like a monsoon, an epic natural disaster, and they’re trying to like just get on with it quickly so they can leave. But the water is rising up inside the grave, like this huge muddy pool filling it up from the bottom!"
Cass had stopped waiting for people to react, she was being driven ahead by her own excitement at telling the story. She could be telling it to a room of the deaf and blind, almost. Mel was watching her with gleeful surprise.
"And the ground is completely soaked and the edges of the grave are like crumbling inwards, and the coffin is sitting on this big metal trolley and the wheels start sinking into the ground that’s falling apart, and it starts like leaning over towards the hole and it’s about to fall in, and just as it’s tipping over one of the guy’s aunties or someone jumps over and tries to pull it back up, and they both end up in the hole!"
Disbelieving laughter and much shaking of heads. Jen had her hand over her eyes in her typical ‘good grief’ fashion, but beneath her pretend anguish there was a huge grin. Ben was sitting forwards, giggling loudly but also watching Cass intently, waiting for her next word. Richard and Lili were both sitting cross-armed and looking at their feet, their shoulders bouncing with laughter but making very little noise. Jordan was wide-eyed and very still, smiling slightly.
Cass paused to soak in the image that she had conjured. Mel got impatient and gave her a shove on the shoulder with the back of her hand.
"Yeah go on then!"
"Right so the coffin is floating in the water, but it’s tipping up and starting to sink like the Titanic, and everyone’s trying to help the lady get out of the hole, and then one of them has a heart attack or something, and they collapse into the hole too!"
"No frigging way!" says Ben.
Mel calmly stepped in to reclaim her story. "It’s true! I gave her CPR in the rain for 40 minutes, and she died. They had the funeral the next day, but I was already booked to fly home."
Everyone was silently agape.
"So then when I arrived at the airport and this one here came to pick me up, the first thing she said was, ‘Good weather up there?’"
The room erupted once more. Ben was going red, Jordan was looking up at the ceiling with her mouth clamped shut to hold it in. Jen now had both hands over her eyes. Lili was leaning over behind Richard’s shoulder, making small joyful yelps, and Richard was looking over to me as we both shook with the effort of laughter. Mel and Cass were giving each other gratified smiles over their success — another well-executed deployment of a classic story. The moment rolled on like a storm, coming in waves that built up and crashed upon us.
In the ebbing-away of the noise and energy, Jen breathlessly said, "I feel terrible now!", and the laughter swept over us all one again, as if in agreement. As some of us wiped at our eyes and others breathed deeply to wind down from the moment, Lili began asking questions to fill in the gaps in the story. Things like, "When exactly was this?" "Did you ever go back?" "Did anyone get in trouble?" And my mind began to drift off a little.
I was letting go for a moment, becoming detached from everyone else. I stopped hearing the conversation around me, and began to feel very keenly the breath coming in and out of my chest. I looked at this room we were sitting in, and listened closely to check that the music was still playing. After a few seconds I could pick out which song it was — a Radiohead track, one of their more mellow late-career tunes, now that there were all getting a bit old for the melodrama.
I drifted back from the room to the table. Now Mel was talking.
"But I think we’re kinda at that point now where we’re just staying together because if we broke up, then I’d starve, and she’d have to wear the same skid-marked undies every day until she found someone else who’s prepared to clean up after her."
General laughter as Mel and Cass give each other amused, reassuring looks.
"But anyway, who cares? I want to hear about you, Ben. Yes, you!"
"Haha, OK, whaddaya wanna know? Haha!"
Mel leaned forward over the table, propping her chin upon both hands like a child in rapt attention. "Tell me what you love about Jordan."
"Come on, really!"
Hearing her name, Jordan again seemed to wake from her drifting thoughts, and with wide eyes she slowly looked around the table at all the faces fixed on her and her husband. She turned her head to look up at him, with his face all muddled as he wondered how to answer. Mel sat watching him closely — she seemed to have quickly made friends with him earlier in the night, and was now enjoying giving him a hard time, as old friends are wont to do.
A few times Ben started to speak, only to catch himself and reconsider his answer. He kept his eyes on the ceiling, as if looking for the right words. There were nervous chuckles from everyone but Jordan, and total stillness from Jordan herself.
"Well … Well I guess it's a lot of things. She's got an incredible moral compass, always completely sure of what's right, and she doesn't even think before following through on it. Like it's not even second nature, it's just obvious to her that she has to do the right thing, regardless of anything else. I've always really admired that, and I feel like she makes me a better person because of that. Like I'm always thinking to myself, 'What would Jordan think if I did such-and-such?'
"And I always loved how mysterious she can be. Like for the first year that I knew her, I thought she hated my guts because she never spoke to me, but then eventually she just opened up to me and it's like I was being let into a secret place people don't usually get to go to. Like she doesn't show her feelings to just anyone, and you have to be pretty special for her to tell you what she’s thinking, so I always feel like I'm a special person.
"So if she smiles at you, you know you've earned it, you know it's real, not just for politeness. I know some people think that's kinda rude, but I feel like she's just the most honest person I know. She's never mean, never honest in a cruel way, and being honest means we're really connected, there's no second-guessing or trying to figure out what she means or what I mean to her. And that's such a relief, like it’s the opposite of how hard it is to connect with people, sometimes.
"Oh and of course she's beautiful, and smart, and she cooks a jambalaya so good it'll make you wanna slap yo mama! Hahaha!"
Ben laughed his cheeky laugh and turned to his wife, who kissed him on his lips and teeth as he kept grinning and giggling. He turned to us and shrugged with innocent amazement at what he had just said.
¤ ¤ ¤
But as long as some nights feel, they all end. After the warm conviviality of eating together, after changing the music a few times, after the desserts I had spent most of the evening silently worrying about, after conversations that divided into two and then three and then melded back into one, and again, after too many drinks, after minor spills and misplaced words that were quickly forgotten, after the drying out of talk and the sudden homeward rush sparked by one person's leaving, after the house suddenly was very quiet and jarringly real and the music felt wrong and had to be turned off, after stacking the dishwasher and filling the sink while reassuring each other and ourselves that it all went quite well, didn't it — after all that, I was lying almost fully submerged and almost perfectly still in the bathtub, with my eyes scanning the page of a novel, but without really reading it.
I have in my mind so many incidents of this type. We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.
I was feeling mushy and loose, a familiar feeling that always sets in after a little too much time spent with people. A kind of pressurised numbness in the head from too much listening, a soft ruefulness from too much talking, a whirring of thoughts and sounds and images from the past few hours that all revolved around a couple of salient moments, stretching them about and feeling as if they were some of the most real and meaningful moments of my life, for now at least. Until the next set of moments. Among the faint sploshes and tinnitus and the sounds of my breathing I could hear Jen's footsteps in the hallway, and I wondered if she had the same familiar syndrome. As she changed into her pyjamas, as she took her dirty clothes to the laundry, as she softly closed the kitchen window and turned off the lights in the hallway, how did she feel? In her calm, impassive face there would be no signs, or maybe a faint look of weariness, but in the end none of these feelings can be properly expressed. Or rather, expressing them shows a kind of weird curiosity, or nosiness, about the private feelings of others. What could she say to the question, "Does spending time with our friends make your mind numb and your sense of self unsettlingly vague?" If she gave an honest answer, would I know it?
I was working hard to pull my eyes back onto the page again and again — they wanted to look through the paper to a point a long way away, somewhere beyond the tiles of the bathroom wall.
One of the daughters of Signora Assunta, the fruit and vegetable seller, had stepped on a nail and died of tetanus. Signora Spagnuolo's youngest child had died of croup. A cousin of mine, at the age of twenty, had gone one morning to move some rubble and that night was dead, crushed, the blood pouring out of his ears and mouth.
I suppose some feelings can be properly known, sometimes people are transparent. Like Cass’s story. Nobody could have told it the way she did. It was completely hers, so telling it was a way for us to feel closer to her, to know her tones and inflexions and to understand what elements of a memory seem most important to her, and worth relaying. The story itself was beside the point. It was a fairly pointless story anyway. But it had made us all laugh and feel good. It was only one of many bouts of laughter we all shared, but for some reason it had lodged itself in my mind. I could almost hear the laughter again. It couldn’t be faked, it was spontaneous, a pure expression of emotion. I’m not sure which emotion exactly, maybe there is no name for the feeling that leads to laughter. It isn‘t quite the same as joy, and it’s something stronger than mere amusement. Something like the gleeful abandonment of control, letting a pleasant reflex become your whole self for a brief moment. (Jen always laughs during good sex.)
I thought about the moment that we all got caught up in, as we listened and laughed. In the dining room that Jen and I had decorated and arranged. Feeling warm and satisfied by the food we two had made. With music playing quietly — the music I had carefully picked out and arranged in the correct order. The environment and atmosphere was what we provided in place of fun anecdotes and magnetic personalities. I enjoyed being the backdrop against which our friends could be interesting and bright. I helped construct a scenario that they could made their own. So I still shared in their significance, even as my own significance was overshadowed by it.
There is a quiet, dignified pleasure in being the man at the periphery, who can be the butt of a kind joke or provide answers to interesting yet trivial questions. I tried to believe that that could be enough for me, that nobody really needs to be memorable and fascinating, it’s only an illusion, that people only thrive on attention when they believe they need it. Like sex — it may feel essential, especially to those who aren’t getting it, but there’s clear evidence in their own lives that it isn’t. I am proof that a person can survive being dull. I was always trying, either by elaborate cooking or by a few particularly insightful comments on a pupil’s essay, to be notable despite the dullness. And people seemed to appreciate it, but did they really remember? In the image of me that they kept in their mind, was I at least partly coloured-in, or only a grey outline, as I had always feared? As I floated there in lukewarm water, staring through the pages of my book, I had to imagine how we all had looked, sitting around our table, as Cass made us laugh. Cass and Mel were the fully-fleshed centre, Richard and I were a vague double-headed blur around the margins. And the others, well, I had my own thoughts about each of them.
Richard and me. We seem to suffer from the same affliction, though he is wearing it much better than I am. When we were young men, only just done with being boys, we were lively and well-known. We read everything and had an opinion on anything. We were fierce debaters, without being mean about it. We caused a little wave of excitement to swell when we arrived at a party, or found our friends at a loose end. I don’t know how we did it, but we seemed to be a force of elation in our own little world. In the landscape of other people’s lives we were like a local attraction — not an impressive monument or a grand vista, but maybe a curious side-street that is worth a visit, according to the people who know of it.
My cousin's father been killed when he fell from a scaffolding at a building site. The father of signora Peluso was missing an arm, the lathe had caught him unawares. The sister of Guiseppina, Signor Peluso's wife, had died of tuberculosis at twenty-two.
At times like these, when time and its passage feel brutally real, and I can look at past decades with the perspective of someone high on a bridge watching slow-moving water pass underneath, with no way of altering its course, and in the far-off bends of the riverbank I can clearly see the effect of this great mass of water pushing and deforming the landscape, I feel almost as if I am dying, and have been for a long time. The person I was, years ago, I can see him vividly and in great detail. But he is not buried within me, not reshaped into something new, not caged, but rather he has drifted away. Or perhaps I have drifted from him; he is somewhere further up the river and I have floated downstream towards the calm, empty seas, and it happened so slowly that neither of us noticed it until we separated by such a distance that we knew we could never reach each other again. It’s a peculiar kind of death, to be dying of a sort of creeping common sense. To have lost so many irrationalities and contradictions, and settled on being functional and pleasant.
Does Jen see this change in me, how I’ve lost so much of what used to be me?
With Jen and me and all our ageing friends, there’s some kind of vicious cycle at play. Each person watches each other person slowly closing themselves off, and it scares them into closing themselves off too. Or maybe it’s just another physical law of the universe. It’s entropy, thermodynamics — over time all things eventually equilibrate to a state of complete uniformity. Or the law of large numbers — eventually a system will always converge on its average, never to deviate again. Sure, age is only a number, but let’s not pretend that numbers don’t mean something.
Thinking about Ben’s vivid honesty, as he sat next to me in my silent poise, I thought of the long car trips with my mother when I was a teenager. I would sit in the passenger’s seat, watching trees pass by, timing them against my heartbeat, with my restless thoughts jumping between one thing and another. It felt like having an encyclopædia of my own life open before me on a blustery day, catching glimpses of glossy black-and-white images, reading half a sentence here and there before the next page suddenly flipped down before my eyes, drawing connections between ideas and memories that had never occurred to me before, making sense of everything in the way only a teenager could. I would look over to my mother as she drove the car, looking straight ahead in silence, and I would marvel at the quietude of her mind, and then conclude that it is truly pitiful to live an unexamined life like hers. Then I would turn to look out my window again, and continue sitting silently also.
But that conversation with Richard, that was something! We still had some spark, some verve about us. We were able to talk about something completely new to both of us, with some little measure of wit and irreverence. Who knew that the many kinds of deterministic philosophy had their own degrees of lameness? Not me, until it came out of my mouth. Yes, maybe there was something still left in us, which we can squeeze out at the right moments.
I couldn’t help but compare it to Ben’s speech, though — the clarity of his feelings and thoughtfulness of his words. It would probably become the defining feature of Ben in my mind, the way he spoke about Jordan. It would be hard for me not to think of him as honest, loving, vulnerable, and completely in love with his wife, regardless of whatever happened the next time I met him. As he spoke so touchingly about his wife, what did Jen do? Did she look at me, did she think about me? I tried my best to remember whether I had ever said something so plainly romantic. Probably. Before Jen, back when I was spending whole weeks torturing myself with thoughts of Lana as she sat blissfully ignorant of me at the other end of the country, I had written a few letters so full of heartfelt longing and devotion that they would probably be sickening to read now. I had come close to posting one of them, too.
Surely I had told Jen all the things I felt about her by now, at least in small dribs and drabs. There are so many things that are easy to leave unsaid, and never properly spill the beans. Maybe there is a perfect time and place to say it all — a secluded place, sometime before we really get used to each other. At one point we were both alone, then we met and we were excited by the possibilities of each other, then we grew intimate and adoring of each other, then slowly we got more comfortable and less distinct from one another. It’s probably the intimate and adoring time that’s best to say romantic things. At that time it would have been blindingly obvious what things Jen says and does and thinks that expand my life and enrich my emotions and set my mind ablaze. But now there’s so little left to experience anew, and there border where our two lives join together has become soft and indistinct. I would only know how happy she is making me if one day she just didn’t come home from work.
What do I love about Jen?
The oldest son of Don Achille — I had never seen him, and yet I seemed to remember him — had gone to war and died twice: drowned in the Pacific Ocean, then eaten by sharks.
I closed my eyes and rested my head against the tub’s porcelain. The bump at the back of my skull, like the underside of a child’s spinning top, made my head fall askew and face towards the tile wall. The yellow light above me was deep pink when filtered through my eyelids. I tried to forget that I was there in our bathroom, to focus on the weightlessness of immersion, and to imagine that I was free in space, without the confinement of our walls, our lights, our sounds, our life.
I felt the fingers of sleep gently groping at the edges of me again, and I had to open my eyes. I strained to hold my head up off the tub, and peer down at my pale body. The skin of my toes was water-logged and wrinkled, making them just a shade whiter than the soap bubbles that still floated idly alongside them. Tomorrow I would have to wake up and go to work. Suddenly I was aware of how cold the water had become. The comfort and relaxation I was feeling had just turned to boredom and fatigue. I was already tired from so much talking and listening, and the unstoppable thinking had worn me down even more. I shouldn’t say unstoppable — there’s one way to stop thinking, and that’s to just stand up and do something
So I got up and squeezed the water off myself, then put my foot out onto the frigid tiles and started readying myself for bed.
In clean pyjamas I went into the bedroom, where it was half-dark and everything was cast in soft yellow from Jen’s bedside lamp. She was buried under a pile of blankets, only her head and arms poking out, and she was holding up a pull-out section from the weekend newspaper. I looked at her and thought about how her bare arms alone would once have been painfully alluring to me. Then I decided that that was enough of that for one day. She folded the paper and placed it on the bedside table as I lifted my side of the blankets up and shuffled in next to her.
I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. She asked me whether I hung up my towel. I said yes. She turned the light off. I shifted my pillow over towards hers. She said it just annoys her when people leave things on the floor. I whispered, "Of course, dear."