My life has not been extraordinary. I have not suffered outside the realms of the normal human experience. I have only been confronted by grief and loss as we all have or will, and I do not carry heartache with me. Instead, I keep it in a box on my bookshelf, and sometimes late at night when the window is open and the world has stopped its noises I open it. In the moonlight it shines. I cry and this is precious.
At 11pm on a hot and dark weeknight, I stand in the electronics aisle in a 24 hour homewares store, staring vacantly at a variety of cheap blenders. I drove here alone. I am tired beyond sleep; restless for action. Slack-faced employees stack shelves and customers move silently past me. I wonder what decisions led these strangers to find themselves mute and drawn under fluorescent lighting on this night. I avoid eye contact. Days and weeks and months and years stretch abstractly before me amongst the blenders, each box promising more than the last. It occurs to me that I don’t know what I need in a blender, or if I need one at all. I stand forty minutes before leaving empty handed.
High school slowly winds down as my neighbour and I sit in the back seat of a friend’s convertible, red, the licence plates ‘JANINE’. On a still summer night, we drink cider from the bottle as he speeds along empty roads I’ve driven my whole life. On the highway my hair stings my face. I close my eyes. The wind is deafening and we’re happy not talking. We drive for movement’s sake. The evening is warm, electric with anticipation. I am excited for plans I have not yet imagined and places I don’t know I’ll go. I’m not sure how to communicate this feeling so I don’t try. Dropped home with a whispered goodbye, I creep in the side gate, bracing for the click of the latch. Any remnants of last night’s euphoria evaporate with the sunrise and I wake under sheets worn soft and a familiar ceiling.
There is a house among the gumtrees. The sea reflects the hot sun. There is a deck and on the deck are four chairs and a table. I am here for a week. I borrow Mum’s car and drive to the shop very early. On the main street in town I do not see faces I know. On the deck in a chair with frayed upholstery I open Saturday’s paper, running my finger down a seemingly infinite list of numbers. My focus blurs. I find a number that is mine. I find that number again in three different papers. Mum smiles for me and calls Dad with the good news. At the fish and chip shop I ask her to order for me. Our food is wrapped in today’s paper.
I am eighteen. My dog Tashi is thirteen. She is blind, she has arthritis, and has no sensation in her back legs. I walk in the front door and she smiles, jumping up like a scarecrow, stiff and eager. During the day, though, she lies prone for hours, too old to play and unable to see. I think about this for a long time. I cry. I am responsible for her health and happiness and I find she doesn’t have enough. I go to the vet. I tell him my dog is old, my dog is in pain and I ask him to put her down. Because I think she’s tired of living. I lead my dog into a small, brightly lit room and the vet gives her a treat. She is glad, because they are her favourite. I give Tashi a kiss. I tell her she is a good girl. I know it is important for her that I don’t cry. Dad stands back a little bit, I think, because he can’t help it.
In a crowded supermarket I watch a mother with modelling clay stuck to the bottom of her shoe park her trolley in front of the frozen desserts cabinet. Turning her attention to the inhabitant of the baby seat, she asks him to choose a treat. He blinks warily at the glass, unease rising in his soft shoulders. His eyes lose their focus. The case becomes a blur of colours, the door beaded with condensation and the glass smudged with fingerprints. He sees nothing he knows. He looks back at his mother. His eyes well. Frustrated, she snaps at him and now he cries. Mum leans over to me and in a whisper she explains that sometimes a child is better off not being given a choice.
I am fifteen. Winter sun heats the slate floor of the living room and in a woollen jumper I’m too warm. I crouch to lace my school shoes. Mum comes to sit on the couch, too still for the morning. Carefully, she explains she’s ill. The cat knocks something over in the laundry, a reminder this conversation has no place amongst crumpled newspapers and the same breakfast I eat every morning. My gaze lands on a painting in the kitchen, an orange house overlooking a blue ocean, which has been there so long I never see it. I feel my older sister’s purposeful silence in the next room. My school uniform seems absurd and I don’t want to pack a lunch. I could stay home but I’m angry that the animals still want to be fed. I go to school. Homeroom is noisy and full of laughter. I retreat to the sick bay where an older girl has burned her ear with a hair straightener. There is no place I would like to be.
Outside I can hear the geckos. I am a child. We’ve lived on this island for several months, but now it is time to go home. My older sister is asleep next to me in the bed we share, her breathing deep and steady. Tired, I vaguely recognise her vulnerability. At dinner a few hours previously, across the road at my aunt’s house, we ate roast chicken followed by mini Magnums. Now, lying still under the heat, my parents taping boxes in the next room, I am overwhelmed by unnamed terror. Dad always disappears five minutes before boarding, absentmindedly roaming the gift shop. Rushing adrenalin and nausea juxtapose the warm quiet of our bedroom. I cannot imagine tomorrow.
The Christmas after I graduate my sister gives me a piece of art. It’s a picture of a map, digitally manipulated using a complicated mathematical formula. Somewhere in eastern Europe is transformed into a series of triangles that form a rectangle, none of them where they should be, displaced next to lakes and mountains I’ve never heard of. She writes a note on the back of the frame, that this piece is for my home, wherever that may be. Come January it sits in bubble wrap in my childhood bedroom, alongside several mismatched socks and a bed stripped of sheets.
I want so badly to wake up late and find a note on the bench, covering a bacon and egg sandwich, telling me what to do.
My throat constricts. I have checked in two suitcases and my carry-on is clearly over the weight limit. In the departure lounge I watch other people. Some complacent in polyester ties, others nervously alone. For half a moment I comprehend the endless multiplicity of our briefly shared paths.