January. Even the cold water tap ran hot, it was that kind of day. I sucked on a piece of ice-cold watermelon soaked in gin - local gin we had bought to ‘support the community’ - and it tasted wonderful; on top of the drugs maybe too much, but what is too much. At a certain point it is hard to say. And what does it matter. The bushfires were getting closer. You couldn’t see them yet. Nothing like that. But there was a heatening up of everything; sky into a kind of blue oven, earth into a quarry of dirt, forest into trembling, dry-branched beasts, arms outstretched into graceful arcs of surrender. And we got drunk, Steve and I. In various ways. Put on loud music. Said things people usually only say when they are drunk - about love and hate and everything in between. About important things and ridiculously unimportant things, and all the little things in between. Which is where it all matters. Children. People. Griefs. Failures which are not failures, and successes which are not successes. Steve was bent over his iPhone having a private moment. We had been together non-stop for some days now, travelling in his van, liking being together but not liking the being forced into it bit. How much privacy should there be between even people who love each other? I don’t know. It is hard to say.
And the sky now in that camping ground, it was dark-ish, the glow of fires and fog lights echoing off thick clouds, and the night, it was lost in there somewhere, and I looked up and thought of the night, the real night, the crystal clear one behind all that murk, studded with little crystals of cut-glass stars and smooth polished domes of planets and the sparky comets and tiny moons, and our own, single, large ghost-phased, multiple personality moon, that phased in and out for our pleasure, it seemed - it all lay up there, still there, still what it was.
We slept. The kookaburra was first, ripping into the pre dawn dark - and then a flood of bird-calls of all descriptions - filling us whole with their sear of melodious shrieks.
We drove. A rush of cicada song had spilled into the air swelling into our ears and pinging off our hearts, or so it seemed to me. Then stillness - a thin stillness - thin as air prickled with the dapple of fine-skinned trees, and leaf shade, and lazy boughs, and creaking - the rustle of lyrebirds picking their way among reeds, and sunset-coloured sandstone, rocks big as your face, and sharp, long grasses threading the scene all brown, green water puddling in a blessed pool, and a family of dragonflies hovering. Somehow we didn’t get burnt alive, and we drove home to our respective places.
The country, our lovely, undecided, quivering-in-heat type of country, Australia, started to push its sleeves up, get on with it. The US was slowly combusting in a type of ridiculousness that seemed orchestrated for our bemusement down here in the south of the planet. We are the kind of people who like to scratch our heads, and cross our arms, and sigh indulgently.
It was a few weeks before COVID - and we were in the twilight gloom of late night. Steve finally stopped convulsing - and then he gave me a deep look - I would have to call it romantic if I had to call it anything. And I admit that, at that precise moment, I probably gave him something by way of facial expression that mirrored that back. Maybe I even felt it. Who knows. These feelings just wash through you sometimes and at the moment they mean something then a little while later they don’t. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to just stay in bed,’ he said, ‘and keep fucking. I mean all day.’ I pondered that for a moment, thinking of the things that would need cancelling.
‘As well as tonight?’ I asked curiously, since we had already been together since Friday night, and I was trying to determine the boundaries of the equation.
‘O that’s ok, I know you’re busy,’ he said, likely because he interpreted my calculating face for my disapproval face.
But I did sigh and say, ‘It’s just that when we do spend a lot of time together, we end up bonding and getting a bit in a frenzy and then you get scared and run away for a bit.’
‘You think I run away?’ he said. Not a question.
‘Yes, I do,’ I said. Not an answer.
Maybe it is love, who am I to know, I’ve been married twice (as Steve keeps reminding me) - and the most recent was now being ‘dissolved’- as the law called it. A decree nisi was sitting in an email on my iPhone, nestling in my bag, ready to be signed as soon as I downloaded it. It felt a little like a small heartbeat thudding away, rapid and intent. Sign me, sign me, it asks rhythmically. Of course I would. Soon. But. I was tired. Of being thoughtless. Of over thinking. I wasn’t sure what was in between.
Dissolution. Dissolving. That’s a pretty good word for it, divorce, because now I felt like I had been holding onto things that had seemed solid at the time, but had dissolved, become ... I sigh, (or sighed; time became nothing, past tense, future, present a sliding and dovetailing of all points of reference), I sigh/ed to myself, searching, searching. Well, here I was having been married for something like a decade or so, and I opened my hands, and there was nothing there. And there had been, but I couldn’t remember what, but only that I had held tightly to not let go, and now I open/ed my hand there was only sweat.
I had caught Steve trying to have a wank somewhere in the middle of the night just at the time I was planning on giving him a little nudge myself.. ‘ Mine,’ I said greedily and grabbed him. Now this, this was real. I held him solidly in my hand, stroking, not gently, and pulling him in. He slid in slowly, and there was a lot of breathing, then more breathing, and even more. ‘How did you know?’ he asked. Two weeks into COVID, and we had learnt the art of talking things out while having sex – the slow building phase, and the slow mellowing out phase: moments when we nearly there, lost, and were so close, I suppose, as close as any two beings can be – breathing together, measuring some beat together, giving in, letting sway, food, careful shopping, treating everyone else carefully, breathing in relief when we entered our tiny space, some mini apartment he had bought after his divorce. ‘How did I know you were wanking?’ I said incredulous. ‘How could I not know?’ The whole bed had been shaking - even if I weren’t the lightest sleeper on the planet. He leant into me deeply, muzzling my neck fondly, some type of big-cat-biting-affection – no words. And suddenly I had visions of Steve, married for so many years to Marg, and Marg happy to pretend to sleep quietly while Steve pleasured himself, giving her respite.
A week before COVID we had decided to go to a winery. Respite. Steve held open the van door in a robotic-dancing-the-minuet kind of way.
‘Are you holding the door open for me because you are anticipating I will perform unspeakable sexual acts on you later,’ I asked as I swung into the van - some bullet headed thing, all shiny and compact, a huge mattress taking up it’s whole rear, meant for weekend getaways.
Steve raised his eyebrows innocently and shook his head, saying, ‘But of course,’ and then raised his hands like a Roman debater pleading his case, ‘Isn’t that why any man does this courtesy shit?’
The glaze of early morning sun made even the dust of the unsealed road look golden this far out of Sydney and this close to Collector, taking the Two-Mile-Tree Road, and, for a moment everything looked golden, the dusty unsealed road with its chorus of crevasses and mounds, the trees filling the road with crazy, swaying shadows and crazy, swaying boughs.
Polite Canberrans looked on us coolly, their smart faux country attire neatly pressed, open necked shirts, RM Williams boots slightly scuffed, ladies in long mid-calf skirts, their little scarves knotted around strained necks in hopeful jauntiness. I smile but it hits a vacuum of unsmiling blankness. Hm. Possibly disapproval, and I notice in the long bathroom mirror the black dusty patch on the butt of my white jeans from having been pressed up against the van earlier. Steve and I sit down at the really nice cafe and dig into two egg and bacon rolls that the cafe owners playfully call ‘dingo burgers’. Steve is sturdily and methodically reading out the descriptions of the local wines from the pamphlets handed to us. His voice, it’s like gravel crunching against gravel, and it has no volume control - it’s either on, or off. ‘The residual flavours of lime and berry are redolent of autumn scenes,’ he droned, monotone, his fellow diners sitting in constrained discomfort as his voice kind of imposed... maybe imprinted itself forever, in the colonial room high ceilings, wood and stone, 1850’s job, nicely renovated. I laugh, snort really, and he says, ‘What?’ I can see the faces on the people behind him, whereas he’s facing the wall. ‘What?’ he asks again, truly confused. ‘Is it my voice? Am I being too loud?’ he said in a whisper which came out like he was forcing cement through a grinder. I snort even more loudly.
And then COVID hit.
We hadn’t discussed it, we had just done it - staying together. We watched a lot of TV. I found myself following the little edges of the screen. The little details that normally I wouldn’t see; the way the light refracted at the corners of a shot, creating a little burst of light that was maybe meant to make you look further into the scene. Or the way the shadow of a tree fell almost off screen but not quite; framing its twists and bends and smooth moments, a work of art in themselves. But would I have noticed them before. Before all this. Steve got it, or said he did.
Low sweet love, deep love, the type that came without questions, without having to pass a test without having to fill in a cosmic form, without, without - without many things. Without thorns without barbs and hard angles, without a line that needed to be either crossed or uncrossed. All these things. Without.
So when he fucked me deep and long and not holding back, I wanted to just not speak, just look into his eyes and let him watch me come - that little mirror of bliss, that feather fallen from some angel that we licked clean to feel and taste the proof that it, it was all something, instead of all nothing, and that even, maybe, it was enough. It was enough, if it was this.
So yes, I looked into his eyes and looked with love. It was dawn now, and Steve held me and we were facing each other lying in bed - breathing each other’s breath which sucked up all time, just the doing of that. But there was a spare something of thought that wandered into the territory of - well this isn’t strictly necessary, this closeness. We have both had the thing, and we need to rest, but instead we were kissing soft just to feel each other. Nice really, but disturbing all the same.
Then it started to rain. Rain. Not fair. It was like a stab, lots of stabs, right to the core - not the sex core but that other layer and I hate that layer. No, I don’t hate it but I wish I did. I wish I didn’t have this soft thing that purred and seemed to remember things of its own accord, and sometimes the things I remembered I cannot, could not, recall ever having had. Did. Said. Touched.
I wanted to hurt him, and God knows I tried. But I’m small, way smaller than him, and sure, he complained about his back sticking to the sheets during the night in a joking way - man o man - in a joking way, as if I didn’t really mean to rip him apart. Instead he thought it was passion, and maybe there was some of that, maybe a lot of that.. But there was the blood, his blood, drying hard on the sheets next morning, despite having nails I had cut very short so I could write faster. Faster, and harder, so I could track those thoughts, not let them escape. Let nothing escape, let nothing leave, like so many things had left. Stupid things. Life as we knew it. My girlhood, my first-innocent-thoughts, my first-not-innocent-thoughts, my excuses for other people, excuses so deep that I sucked them into my bloodstream rather than believe something different. That maybe I wasn’t to blame. Maybe it wasn’t all my fault, maybe the world and the people I loved and thought should care for me were driven by things greater than any care they had for me. Or despite it. Maybe those other forces were stronger, yeah, yeah. No. No. Some super-young version of me preferred to believe – utterly believe – that the world was good, and my beloveds, good, it was just me who was wrong, hateful, bad, flawed, a fuck-up. That was way better, because then it was fixable. I could fix myself. Become better. Do better. Seal up the flaws, hone the coarse edges, seal the cracks, glaze the surface, learn from the right people, marry the right boys. Have sex or not sex as fashion dictated. But now. After all this year of trying; drought, divorce, fires, being single, COVID, I had fallen into a no-mans land. A stretch of landscape where other humans were few and far between. A place to be travelled through, but not resided in. A desert–bedouins in the distance tracking mournful camel steps, steadily, thinking nothing but sand thoughts, until at an oasis in the middle of it, I had met Steve.
Steve had come up on a dating app. Not the respectable kind where you hook up to find the perfect partner (I was entirely capable of finding the ‘perfect partner’ in a serialised fashion as two marriages could attest). No, it was the less respectable kind where you explored another person, maybe became friends, maybe just had sex; it was a ‘maybe I’m looking for a partner and maybe not’ type of site. I had been really, really lucky (if other people’s tales are anything to go by) or maybe my finely honed Hemingway bullshit detector hit all the right zones because I had met good men, had fun, moved on. Until Steve perched on the bough outside my window, right at the edge of the bushfires, into which we had driven headlong.
‘You are going to fall for me,’ he had said meaningfully one night while he kneeled behind me. I looked over my shoulder. He was poised, and I dug my hands into the mattress to keep from slipping away. I could see his face from this position, the streetlights lending a glow to the room, enough to see he wasn’t joking.
‘No, I won’t,’ I said decidedly. And leant back slightly to move things along. Gently he pushed my shoulders down. O, I thought, he wanted my head down so he could get in deeper. I sighed happily and obliged. Maybe now he would stop talking.
‘No, you will, you’ll see,’ he said. A little sadly as if it were an inevitability. As if he had read my cards and pointing to one particular one was saying, ‘This card, this card does not lie. You can trust nothing else in this world, but this card,’ tap, tap, tap, on the symbols and signs, the strange omenic graphics, the slices of moon, the stray escaped star, a sun rising, two lovers entwined like Ares and Aphrodite caught in Haephestaus’ net: surprised, shamed, beautiful.
Steve had leaned in slowly, then put his hands up on the bedroom wall above me where a bedhead would be, if you had a bedhead, saying, ‘Are you sure you’ll be ok?’ with a momentary show of concern, indicating I suppose the thrust to come. I smothered a laugh in the thick-sheeted mattress - somehow it was very sexy too - I’m not sure how. Maybe because I felt powerful for a moment - as if I could put my hand up and stop the waves.
‘Yes, yes,’ I say, ‘just, just...’ it didn't seem right to say, just bang away. Later yes, the dirty talk had its place, but right now as he was looking down at my butt being offered with equal measures of enthusiasm and teasing, he said wistfully, ‘You look so small when I look down and...’ but this time the concern had an edge of lust to it, and I didn't answer, just pushed back a little. Until, some time later when he lay on top of me, face to face, mouth to mouth – like seeing someone on another shore – you can see their shore, the lapping waves, the thoughts propelling them, the memories as clearly as if it were water, the bluest, clearest tropical water, even the tiny fish, half-invisible, the sun glowing through them, and small clouds of sand whirling where the smallest of transparent things burrowed steadily, and tiny wafers of seaweed floated crazily, a medusa’s hair. Close, so close, yet still a sea between you, but closer than anyone ever before...
Yoga teaches you this - to find truths inside the body, this freedom taking you away from the this, that and the other of everyday. I say this to Steve, because what does it matter, I can say whatever I like. ‘Yes, yes,’ he says brightly, ‘I feel that way about skiing - the minute I click on those skis and know what I can do - the freedom it is going to bring...’ he sighs in bliss recalled. ‘I should teach you, you know. You’d be good. You have balance and...’.
‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘Do you want me to teach you yoga?’ Quizzically.
‘No. I’m like a block of concrete.’ Wry.
We got up for a little while to turn on the teev - check the death count. Here, elsewhere.
‘Are we in a relationship,’ I asked him?
We were in one of those strange zones, kissing non-stop after having had sex. This was confusing. Maybe it was the the papers in my bag, now ready to be signed.
He knew there was no agenda in the question and that I was in my journalist mode - just curious to see what was going on in his mind. ‘Well, I thought it was understood,’ he said. ‘You’re my woman.’
I was silent. An amazed type of silent. It was like going to some remote part of pre-contact Papua New Guinea, and being presented with an idol that was considered precious by the locals and you have to show it respect, but have no idea what lies behind it all.
‘And, I’m your man,’ he continued, as if this now clarified matters.
The air was thick with the smell of semen, and we held each other, and the suppositions, and the debates and global coverage spilling out of the TV, it was all like a jab between my ribs, and I was asking God what was happening; if we were all evolving and getting closer to the earth that this should be happening. And if the divorce papers in my bag, tightly wrapped between the covers of my laptop - echoed anything real. Love gone cold, love gone stale, the nice equations of who would be good for you, who would suit, a debate started so long ago when I was knee high to my grandmother discussing it with our migrant family as quickly and avidly as the news reports coming out of the TV screen. ‘Someone to control her,’ in low tones. Facts. Nails in a small coffin. Bang, bang.
Look, maybe I did fall for him, maybe I did. O don’t make me say it. That word, I can barely say it - well certainly not write it, because it has to have a meaning when you write it and I didn’t know what it meant. Not in this context. What with wanting every bit of the other person. Every bit of skin, every bit of heart, every bit of knowledge and thought, every moment of their breath, every sigh and cough and spit and hair which sometimes gets caught between your teeth.
And what does love mean anyway; I mean, love gets lost. That’s what I had learnt so far. It always got lost in the wilderness of life and people and things and verbs, lots and lots of verbs. And even though I know that so thoroughly and it is a fact somewhere in my thorn-riddled life, my enjoy-the-flowers-on-the-hedges type of life... yet. Love in my life always seems to get lost and yet... I can’t stop grieving it. It is there, sitting with me, side by side, my grief of something that I know isn’t there and hasn’t been there - love, love-without-end type of love.
Would it be just another piece of paper - yes, that’s what it would become. Just another piece to store away like all the others hurriedly packed away in a suitcase which still lay unopened in my garage after having moved out. And when I howled was it a howl of love, or grief, or passion, or just a sheer thickness of anger, slashed slices of rage excised and now dangling on the sword-point in triumph, tearing an image of itself into the air. Jagged. Like the graphs on the TV, which made no sense.
I remember looking up at the red horizon during the bushfires, thinking, we might not make it, get caught in the bush where we had camped illegally one night, evading the forest rangers. Empty dams, more than empty; cracked, dry in a crazed pattern, bare knuckles of dirt, dried mud puckered as if kissing upwards in the hope of finding moisture in the sky’s mouth. And finding none, grieving.
There is nothing so solid as love, I had thought in a haze; heat, fire, alcohol, drugs, confusion. But you have to wipe away the grease and dirt on yourself and the other to find it there, shining, angelic, luminous, lovely, barely breathable, it is so sweet and light. But solid. A gold bar, a mound of moonstone, a temple of crystals. Solid.
I turn in bed, and there is Steve. Sigh sigh sigh. I don’t know what any of this means. Maybe there is no meaning at all, just a rubbing up against each other, meeting and saying hello, are you friend or foe - rub, smell, make meaning of it.
‘So, I’m your woman,’ I say. He nods. We watch the death count, we hold hands.
Maria Issaris writes non-stop. She has one unpublished novel and is writing another on two very different things. She produces radio programs on new writers, interview them, help all of us develop Writers profiles. Maria sits on a board for community radio, and runs a community writers group. She is starting an audio book business in collaboration for my radio station and also a publishing company for new Australian writers to nourish them and link them with eager readers.