Recently I’ve been waking up with the knowledge that you’re dead. Before, there had been those first few moments of innocence on awakening, when my semiconscious mind would believe you were next to me. That happened for months. Even after I moved house, and the bed was in an entirely different position, underneath an altogether different window, bringing new sounds of airplanes each morning, I’d still wake thinking you were with me.
Now I know at once that you’re gone. I go out with friends and I’m surrounded by people who are not you. Someone’s eyes will light up, and I’ll find myself wondering what their skin feels like, what they would smell like in my bed. I give out my number and feel a pang of guilt afterwards, as though I’ve betrayed you. If they call: I don’t answer. If they text: I don’t reply.
Your eyes are always on me, close against my skin. I feel you under my clothes when I’m walking down the street, teaching a class, ordering a coffee. You make me aware of the nerve endings, the shape of my nipples tightening into focus underneath my shirt. At some point each day it becomes too much, and I find myself staggering against collapse, like an animal fated for slaughter. My legs: tethered. Your gaze: sharp as a machete.
I send a text message to your youngest son, Phil. The one who doesn’t refuse to speak to me. I ask him if he wants to go for lunch. He says he’s busy, so I wait a week before my next text. How about a drink then?
We meet at six o’clock at the Erskineville Bowling Club, your old local. Not mine anymore. He’s already there when I arrive. We kiss each other on the cheek. I’d forgotten how tall he is. I order a beer and he orders a red wine. He asks to see the wine list, and for some reason I find this endearing. We take our drinks over to a booth against the far wall. He tells me about his studies and I talk a bit about my PhD. He raises a couple of current topical issues, including the state of politics and a recent natural disaster, but somehow we manage to keep it light. It’s not until I walk back over from the bar with our fourth drinks, a bag of salt and vinegar chips under my arm, that I decide we have to broach it this time: you. I sit down, take a large gulp of beer, and swallow.
‘Your mum used to like it here,’ I say, trying to make it sound like the thought just popped into my head. It’s true, we used to come here together a lot, you and I. Get drunk slowly, feet playing underneath the table. It wasn’t until we were well inside the Imperial up the road that we’d sit legs entwined on the corner lounge and kiss as though no one else were in the room.
Phil blushes as though he’s read my thoughts. I find myself scanning his face for traces of you. There’s a hint of your forehead about his, and most definitely you had the same colour hair when you were his age, long before I knew you. But looking at him now, I realise it’s his lips that make him most resemble you.
Marlon Brando lips, I used to call yours. And you’d jut your chin out when I’d say this, doing that ridiculous The Godfather impersonation that I loved. But there is something more fragile about Phil’s face. It’s a younger vintage of Brando, more A Streetcar Named Desire. His skin is so young it looks raw to me.
‘She liked it anywhere they served liquor,’ he says, quietly.
His voice is delicate and sculpted and has always made me imagine him onstage performing Shakespeare. Liquor is such a strange word to use. Why not alcohol? Or grog? Liquor sits upright on the tongue, forced and formal. I wonder how much of his world feels like a costume he’s wearing. I wonder what he looks like when he’s relaxed.
‘What she really liked, most of all I think, were places where people could just be themselves,’ I say.
‘Like I said: places where people drink.’ He smiles again.
I laugh, feeling the beer and his company wearing down my edges. He is much kinder to me than he has to be. He always has been. While your older ones were sulking and pretending I didn’t exist, Phil was always curious and open, treating me like a potential friend.
‘Not just pubs, bedrooms too,’ I say, hiding my grin by sipping my drink.
He coughs and almost chokes on a chip.
‘Sorry,’ I say, ‘you probably don’t want to hear that.’ I feel a slight sense of vertigo as I pull back and straighten out my grin.
Then I burst into tears. Like a jellyfish rigged with fireworks.
He reaches into his pocket and offers me a handkerchief. There is something so gentlemanly about this gesture. I feel an urge to take him home and hold him, as though he were a teddy bear infused with the essence of you.
‘Thanks.’ I bury my face in the cloth
‘It’s okay, Claire,’ he says, my name crisp and beautiful in his mouth.
When I feel his hand on my shoulder it’s the only cue I need. I shuffle around in the booth next to him, pick up his arm and place it over my shoulder. He offers no resistance. I slide my other hand behind him, running it over the small of his back until my arm is around his waist. His shirt is slightly damp against the vinyl. I can feel the muscles in his torso twitch. I lean into him and smell a citrus fragrance, not unpleasant, but not at all bodily. I nuzzle into the side of his chest, and breathe him in again. His smell is stronger here. It smells nothing like you. I bring my head up towards his face slowly, keeping my eyes closed, grazing the surface of him with my lips as I go. I stop when my nose reaches his. I imagine my lips to be level with his.
His body stiffens. The hand on my shoulder starts to pat me. Gentle, slow and deliberate. It is the kind of pat that two businessmen might exchange to offset the intimacy of a manly embrace.
I lean forward just enough to make our lips touch. I can’t tell if they feel anything like your lips. I realise with horror that I can’t actually remember what your lips feel like. I decide to just go for it anyway, and for a brief moment I feel him soften and yield to me, and I almost reach his tongue before he panics and pushes me off. He stands up, knocking the table a bit and walks away quickly. I think he must be leaving, but then I see him head toward the men’s toilets. I breathe out.
He returns with bloodshot eyes and tells me it’s time for him to leave. I ask him to stay for another drink, but he shakes his head. He kisses me on the cheek and I resist the urge to touch his face. We both know we won’t arrange to meet up again. I watch him walk away through the doors and down the path.
I walk home even though it’s a distance I don’t usually consider walkable. When I finally reach home and the front door clicks shut the hall is dark, except for the grey streetlight beaming in through the curtains. I pull them shut and make my way through to the kitchen, turning on the light. I fill the kettle halfway with water and switch it on. I do this out of habit, without even considering whether or not I would like a cup of tea. I just like to hear the water shifting its weight around as it climbs its way to the boil.
I lean against the kitchen cupboards and let myself slide down into a slow-motion collapse. I allow my body to fold in on itself like a wooden puppet being put to rest. The linoleum floor is cool against my face. I feel calm like this, despite an acute awareness that the floor is overdue for a sweep. I can’t remember when I cleaned it last. Is it possible I haven’t done it since I moved in? I try to visualise where I keep the broom and mop in this new place, and I realise I have no idea. I examine up close the scuffmarks, dust and hairs, and two upside-down cockroach corpses barely hidden underneath the fridge.
When the kettle reaches boiling point and the switch flicks off I stay here on the floor like this for a long time, soaking in the stillness of the room.
Tess Pearson is a writer, poet and researcher who lives in Sydney. She has poetry published in Cordite Poetry Review, Open Minds Quarterly, and Rabbit, and fiction and microlit published in various anthologies. Tess was winner of the 2017 NWF/SW joanne burns Microlit Award (national category). Marlon Brando Lips has been performed live as part of the Spineless Wonders events: Writing Down Newtown (2017), Landmarks at Surry Hills Festival (2017), and Derision for Homeowners Won’t Save You: Discomforting Innercity Stories (Sydney Writers Festival, 2018).