I’d been on a valium binge for a week. At the chemist near our hotel I paid two dollars a box. The went down well with codeine you dissolved in water like aspirin.
The codeine tasted so bad you knew you were doing something stupid, but you did it anyway because it made you feel good. And that’s all that mattered really, feeling good, and for as long as possible.
It wasn’t really all that long, but anything was better than nothing during that time.
When she annoyed me I’d grind some valium up with my teeth and spit it into a can of beer before I gave it to her. She always said the beer tasted weird, but she always said that, so it didn’t really matter.
Just drink, I’d say, as though I was tired of hearing her complain.
And I was.
But I was tired of everything then. I was tired of the way the sun rose in the morning and the way it set in the evening. I was tired of the way I had to wake up in the middle of the night to piss. The way I had to get up in the morning and decide what to do, even though I didn’t really want to do anything.
When she was asleep I’d go downstairs and sit at a table outside the hotel and watch the traffic go by. I’d wish it could stay this way for days. That this would never end. That she would sleep upstairs while I got drunk and talked to the concierges in a valium daze.
Why are you sleeping so much, I would say when she finally woke, why don’t you ever want to do anything?
But she’d only shrug and not say anything because, to her, it didn’t matter if she was asleep or awake. It was all the same. She never wanted to do anything anyway.
When she slept the pain went away.
But I could only sleep when I was swallowed by alcohol. My dreams were black then. I didn’t wake up screaming or crying. It was a safety net I fell into.
Or that’s what I tell myself.
But sometimes I’d be out there by the road and it seemed like all the traffic in Saigon was flowing past me, one long chaotic river, and I’d remember something. I didn’t mean to remember it, but whatever it was would come to me and I’d be shocked.
It’d be something little. Not even a memory really, but a snapshot. A single image.
A beach somewhere, her laying beside me, huge glasses on her face, a smile so wide it could swallow me whole and, somewhere, me behind the camera, the sun in my eyes.
Goddammit, I’d say, goddammit.
The boy’s body was face down in the grass, arm bent up behind his back, bone sticking out above the elbow, blood shining in the moonlight. Danny could see from the way the back of his head seemed to dip inwards that the boy was dead.
That there was nothing they could do.
He told Debbie to wait in the car.
Stay in the car, he said.
She couldn’t seem to let go of the steering wheel anyhow. Knuckles glowing white in the dark. She wasn’t crying yet, but he could see the tears welling up, ready to run free over the lips of her eyes.
Don’t worry, he said.
He don’t know why he told her not to worry. The boy was dead and they were in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing he could do to fix things.
It had become a bit of a problem lately – not being able to fix things. More often than not, it felt like things were getting out of his control. He couldn’t seem to get a grip on life, on everything happening around him. And now this, a dead boy face down on the grass, blood leaking out into the dirt.
It felt like the end of something.
There wasn’t even a sense of shock. Only the realisation that he’d been heading to this point for a long time. Now he was here and he figured things couldn’t get much worse.
He knelt beside the body for a closer look. He’d never seen a dead body before and it kind of felt like there was some force emanating from the corpse, keeping him from reaching out and touching it. He knew he should be doing something, checking for a pulse maybe, making sure, but he couldn’t do it.
Is he okay, she called from the car.
He looked back over his shoulder and shook his head.
We’re fucked, he said under his breath.
But the truth was, they’d been fucked for a long time now and this was just everything being locked into place. There was no getting out of it.
What, she said, what did you say?
He waved his hand at her. Shut up.
He thought about the options. The easiest seemed to be just getting up off his knees and bolting into the forest, not looking back, just leaving her to deal with this mess. Just running, running, running.
He would find a quiet place in the forest and build a little shelter out of leaves and fallen down branches. He would eat moss and mushrooms and he would clothe himself in mud. He would never kill another living thing. Not ever.
Out in the wild he would lose weight and his teeth would fall out. He would become a hermit, someone, a myth, parents would tell their children about him. He would grow a beard and at night he would have visions.
The blood was steaming in the cold air. He hugged himself.
Danny, she called, please.
Fuck, he yelled back at her, shut the hell up, I’m trying to think.
He would make friends with the creatures of the forest. They would follow him as he foraged for food, his allies, his flock. He saw them. Fox and bear and wolf. They would nuzzle against him when he laid down to rest.
He would learn their language. Never speaking human words again for fear that he would be struck down.
She was crying now, rubbing at her eyes, smearing mascara everywhere, giving her the look of some kind of sad clown. Jesus, he thought, this is what I’ve built for myself.
He looked into the trees, into the darkness there.
Any second now, he thought, any second now.
He began to count. And at some point he began to run. He heard her voice calling him, calling him back to her, and then he didn’t hear her anymore. All her heard was his feet on the ground and the sounds of branches rubbing together. A soothing sound.
Sometimes she doesn’t know who I am. Sometimes she looks right at me and it’s a stranger she is seeing.
It’s the drugs that do this. It’s the drugs that make it impossible for her to recognize me.
It’s me, I say, don’t worry, it’s only me.
But she’s never sure. She knows the voice, but she doesn’t know the face and she pulls her hand away from mine.
It’s the drugs, I tell myself. It’s the drugs that make her this way. It’s the drugs and the cancer and the weight in this room. The heaviness of everything.
It was so easy once.
I think this and then I feel bad for thinking it.
All her fluids drain into a tube and then into a bag. When I empty the bag the stench is amazing. Every time I experience a feeling of utter disbelief – this comes from her, from inside her?
Is this what love is, I ask as place the bag in a special bin for human waste, is this what it means to love someone?
Every two hours I reposition her body. This is important. Once a day I check her body for areas where her skin may be breaking down. I place a pillow under her heels. I apply barrier creams to bony prominences.
She is all bony prominences.
This is just what human beings do, I think as I make sure that the settings on the special air mattress are correct. These things are happening to people everywhere. Across town somewhere is another man standing over his young wife wondering how they reached this point, wondering how to put his experience into words, wondering why this is happening to him.
Am I being held accountable for something, some crime long forgotten?
When the nurse comes to relieve him for four hours, this man gets in his car and sits in the dark garage trying to decide where he should go. But he feels bad for going anywhere. He feels bad leaving her. Feels even worse that he wants to leave her. That he wants some time to himself. That there is a part of him that is always imagining some release from all this.
That sometimes he can’t help but think about how it might be when all this over and he is actually alone in the world. When she is gone and he comes home that first time and there is nothing. Not the horrible sound of her weak breathing. Nothing. An empty house. And he will go from room to room and he will open all the windows and try to get the smell out of the house. That rotten smell that is in everything .
Sometimes this man imagines these things and then afterwards he begs her for forgiveness because he doesn’t want her to die, not really, he is just so drained and he has no strength anymore and these last few months have felt like an eternity. And there is nothing to look forward to anymore and there is no way out – or the only way out is the worst thing imaginable.
This man. This man on the other side of town crawls into the small bed beside his wife and he wraps an arm around her dead bird body and he feels so weak and so tired and he hasn’t eaten properly for days and he keeps seeing blobs of light floating across his line of site and he hears things that aren’t there and he just wants something to change. He just wants something to happen.
I’m sorry, he says, I’m so fucking sorry, he says and he hears rustling like her body is made of paper and he is sure that at any minute a strong wind will blow and she will up and flutter away from him, his arms grabbing at all the pieces of her as she scatters and tumbles in every direction imaginable.
More and more there are things I can’t explain. Not to anyone. Not to myself. The world itself has become unexplainable.
The colour of the sunlight that lights up what was once our bedroom and falls on her yellowing skin. The way it gives her thinning hair a lustre I always think I’ll never see again. The way she sleeps, mouth gaping, lips dry and flaked with dry scales. The way her skin seems to have a constant shine to it as though she has bathed in olive oil.
More and more I can’t explain it. It is bewildering, really. The way things have gone down. The horrible twists and turns that led us to this place.
The smells that have taken over everything. The smell of waste. Human fluids. Rotting from the inside. A sickly sweet smell that follows me everywhere.
I’m pushing a trolley through the shopping centre and, suddenly, that smell, the smell of an old person’s home, fills my nostrils and I know that I’m covered in it. That I smell like a ninety year old man. That the stench has saturated my clothes. That it has leaked into my skin, an invisible stain.
There are no ways to explain it. Thirty one years old. Her body – a thin tent of skin pulled taut over a frame of bones. The way her breathing fills the house in the middle of night.
And I’m on a mattress on the floor beside the bed, the hospital style bed, and I’m waiting for her breathing to stop forever. I’m counting the seconds in between each breath. I’m getting up to hold the back of my hand over her mouth. I’m leaning in close and pressing my lips into her hair and I’m imagining that I can smell her the way she once was.
And I’m begging for this to be a dream.
I will carry this forever, I think.
Her hand is cool to touch and I hold it in both of mine. In my mind I am visualising some of my own life passing through my skin into her skin. Filling her. I am making bargains. I am trading years. I am summoning demons, selling my soul, cursing everything.
When her eyes flicker open she doesn’t see me, but I tell her it’s okay. It’s okay, I tell her, I’m here.
She lets out a long sigh and maybe I feel her fingers tighten around mine. Or maybe I don’t. It’s so hard to know for sure.
In the morning the sun will shine through the window and the room will glow orange and for a little while it will feel as though something good might happen. I will wash her body with a warm cloth and rub creams into her skin. I will speak to her as I do these things. I will make things up, just so I have things to say, just so my voice fills the room.
I think about all the things I can’t explain to her. All the things I can’t put into words. All the things that are impossible now. It’s all fading so fast. It’s all disintegrating and the things I’m trying to hold onto are just little pieces of nothing now.
These moments. This room. This smell. The sun on her yellow skin. The bones pushing upwards. The way her breath fills the room. Lips pulled tight against her teeth, so big now. Little particles of dust floating in the air, just above her, hanging there.
I’ll be here forever, I think. I’ll be driving down some road somewhere and I will be trying to lose myself. I will be trying to untangle myself. I will be in a different city, a different house, a place so far from here. I will be sleeping in a new bed and my eyes will snap open in the dark and I will be here again.
I will carry it everywhere. I will never leave.
My face is pressed deep into her hair and I am trying, I am trying so hard, I am trying to will all of this into nonexistence. I am trying to make this into ash. Everything. Folding up the world around me. Closing it down. Shutting off the lights.
They don’t tell you about the silence. It’s the one thing you don’t see in the movies. The couples are always fighting. They are always screaming or crying, throwing their hands up in there, scrunching their faces up into horror masks. Glasses smash against walls.
But it’s really the silence.
It’s a house that it is too quiet. There are two people and it is silent. All the time.
It gets to the point where you’re afraid to make a sound. You place things down gently. You hide in rooms that now belong to you. You don’t go into her rooms. You time your movements around not having to run into her in the hallway.
When I need to piss I sit down on the toilet and aim my urine at the porcelain side. It’s quiet that way. I don’t flush. That way she won’t know.
When we are home at the same time I lay on the spare bed in the spare room and I stare at the ceiling. I know the ceiling with an intimacy that is unimaginable.
I guess she does the same thing. I guess she stares at something of her own. Her own ceiling maybe.
It’s like living with a ghost or becoming a ghost or both things at the same time. I guess it doesn’t matter.
It’s silent and the silence is thick and heavy and you can’t get away from it.
She’s in the other room. She’s in the other room and she’s hating me.
This is what it’s like right before it dies, I think.
This is what it’s like just as that last, long breath is being forced out of a tired chest.
"I see that there’s a need here to address the question of why, of what it is that impels me and so many of the writers around me to create stories even in the face of the worlds general indifference…Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art - the making of stories - is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again. There is an elemental power in a good short story, an awakening to something new and unexpected, whether it’s encountered on the page or from the lips of an actor in a darkened theatre where the words stand naked and take you all the way back to the first voice that ever resonated inside you."
— T.C. Boyle (2013)
Just before my wife gets home from work I hide beneath the spare bed in the spare room and wait in the dark. When I hear the front door opening and her footsteps in the hall I clutch at the carpet with my fingers and press my body into the floor.
Sometimes I think that, if I had the willpower, I’d be able to force myself through the cement and pipes, into the earth and find a place to rest there.
When she begins to call my name my heart beats faster. When she is calling me, when my name is echoing through the house, bouncing off the walls, I am praying to disappear. I am wishing to vanish. For an alien ship to suddenly appear above my house, all bright lights, and for it take me away from here.
Matt, she says, Matt?
Sometimes I fall asleep like that, clutching the carpet, praying for nonexistence.
It’s hard to explain, really. It’s hard to pinpoint.
It’s not something you can just sit down and work out, figure out where it went wrong, and then figure out how to fix things. You can’t bring it back or breathe life back into it. It’s gone now. It evaporated when you weren’t watching.
And now it’s hard to recall. Hard to bring it back into focus. It’s like – maybe it didn’t happen at all, maybe it wasn’t that way in the first place.
You have to work with me, she says, you have to try.
And I’m nodding my head and I’m nodding my head and there is this stupid grin on my face and my head is moving up and down. My head is attached to my neck and it’s bobbing away like crazy.
This can’t happen, she says.
But it has happened. She knows it, feels it in her bones. It’s there. It’s in the way she sits there staring at her fork for three whole minutes when we are having dinner. It’s in the way, when she talks to me, her eyes can’t hold onto my face for longer than a second or two. She is always looking to either side of my face, above or below it. She doesn’t want to lock on.
I make agreeable noises. I shrug and huff and blow air through my nostrils.
Why won’t you say anything, she says, why won’t you fucking say anything?
What’s to say, I ask her and she runs screaming from the room as though she has seen something, a blood splattered murderer, right here in the kitchen.
Part of me wants to go to her. Wants to sit down on the bed beside her and reach out with my hands and lay them on her. Part of me wants to put my forehead against her skin, to feel it burning there. But these things are locked up inside of me and if I take deep swallows of air, if I look up into the kitchen light, let it burn my eyes, I will bury it all. I will drive it all away.
Because I know if I go to her it will be a game. A role I am playing. Like everything else around here, there will be a script, and I will read it in all the right ways. My voice will contain the right amount of emotion. My tears will feel real. My touch will have the appearance of warmth. And for a while I will actually believe that there is forgiveness in the world.
She is talking and there tears and snot and makeup all mixed up on her face and she appears like a blur to me. Face like a smudged thumbprint. She is holding herself and her fingers are digging into her own skin.
And I am dreaming of the stars. Of other planets. I am dreaming of a cool sleek capsule tunnelling through the atmosphere towards unknown frontiers. I am dreaming of metal, cold to the touch. A place far from here. Somewhere untouched by dirty hands. Unscarred. Pure.
I am dreaming of ash rising up towards the sky. A tsunami of fucking dust rising up and rushing across the face of the earth. I am dreaming of buildings snatched up in the hands of angry gods. Little people falling. Sprinkling the earth like seeds. Arms waving. Mouths open air rushing in, filling their heads. I am dreaming of fire. Scorching. Blood flowing up from the gutters and washing everything away.
When my eyes wink open I do not know what I will see. I have no idea what will appear before me.
It happens so much you just switch it off, she said.
She was ninety three years old and he was standing over her in the bed, using the electronic control to raise her to his level. He’d asked her how she had hurt her hand in the time since he had last seen her, four days ago. She didn’t know.
After cleaning and dressing her, he fed her breakfast and held the sipper cup to her lips until she told him she’d had enough.
Thanks for helping me, she told him.
It’s okay, he said and then moved on to the next one.
Throughout the day it kept coming back to him – it happens so much you just switch it off, she said. She’d been talking about getting old, falling over, hurting yourself, not bothering to think about it anymore, not keeping track. But it felt like something more.
It felt like she’d explained something for him.
When had he stopped taking note, when he had begun to take it for granted, this feeling, when had it become just the way he was?
The wounded animal.
There was this memory that had been coming to him lately. His father crying. His father in tears, arms around him. I’m sorry, he said. I love you, he said.
And it bothered him that for days he’d been thinking of this memory and he’d been filled with this warm sadness. He had this one memory of his father that he could call good and it seemed to fix everything that had come and gone.
He thought – well at least there was that, at least there was that one time.
Then one night he was driving home from work and remembered something else. It was a dream he’d had a few years back. He’d woken with tears on his face, because of a dream where his father had loved him.
He remembered it well now. It was not long before his father was in the hospital and cancer was literally growing out of him, some kind of oozing fungus, and he’d dreamt that he was a teenager and his father was holding him.
It was a nice dream to have. But it was just a dream. And for a week he’d gone around thinking that it was something real. A memory that belonged to him. When it wasn’t anything at all
The realization hollowed him out and he got drunk and nothing could shake the feeling that he’d had some trick pulled on him. That he’d been played as a fool. A dream, he thought, a stupid fucking dream.
For a while he drove around the streets near his house. He didn’t want to go home. He wasn’t sure if she would be home or not, whether she would yell at him or throw things or what would happen really. And he didn’t want to face her with this hollowed out feeling in his sternum.
He’d been holding this one good thing close to him, pulling it tight against him, and now it was gone, and he didn’t know if he could take much more. Not of anything.
The bruises on his stomach, where she had kicked at him in a rage, were turning yellow now and he could feel them beneath his clothes. Stigmata. A marked person.
He drove by the house and saw the lights on. Every light in the house. Blazing out onto the front lawn. A lighthouse, he thought, warning him away. Here be dragons, he thought. For second, he closed his eyes. He held his breath. He could feel the road moving beneath him.
Something is happening, he thought. Something is about to happen.
I woke to the sound of her voice. She was somewhere in the hotel room, moving from room to room, chanting. Another language.
The air conditioning was up so high the skin on my face felt tight against my skull. A well fitted mask.
Outside the wind beat against the glass windows and the glass shook and I wondered how this had happened. How we had come to be here. How we had reached this point.
What had brought us here?
There was always a tremor in her voice. Always the way she bit her lip as though trying to keep something contained. Always the feeling that I was about to be hurt in some way.
I was always scared of her.
Scared she had stopped loving me. That I had driven her away just through my existence. That each breath I took was like a hurricane blowing her away from me.
There was a way she looked at me now. Something that hid just beneath her skin. Scales lurking there. A cold thing, half dead, hating.
You did this to me, she always seemed to be saying.
And I was always looking for a way to please her. To bring something back to her, that she had lost, and that maybe I had taken. I was always ready to fall before her, begging her, wanting her touch. Just once more.
To see her once more. The way it was before the darkness swept down and poisoned her, poisoned everything around us. The air wet with it. Dripping with poison spores. Each breath a step closer to nothing.
Always my heart caught in my throat. A throb behind my right eye. A feeling in my chest like something huge and slippery has taken hold of my innards and begun to squeeze. Always the terror, the stark raving mad terror that I have failed in every way. Always the no going back. Always the dream where her eyes are all black and her teeth are sharpened down spear heads, dripping blood. Always the night her smile caught me for the first time. Always the way I let her down. The ways I drove something, a wedge, a cold sacrificial knife, between us. Always the air freezing. Always the wind and the glass shaking. Always the sense that something is ending. That everything is coming apart at the seams. That this is never going to end.
That it will go on forever. Unending. A river of nothing rushing towards the horizon.
There is a disease here. Something in my head. A worm, maybe, chewing me up from the inside.
I’m afraid today. The world might be ending, I think. There seems to be something about the day, a wrongness I can’t quite put my finger on. Any minute now smoke will start rising in the distance, a thick haze over the city.
I won’t have the strength to welcome it.
I might beg. I might fall to my knees and ask someone to save me. A saviour. Someone holy. I might say - forgive me, forgive me, forgive.
And I will not be forgiven. I will not be saved. There will be smoke on the horizon and buildings will begin to crumble. The earth will quake and I will quake with it.
I will heave and an ocean of sadness will stream from my mouth. A disgusting mist.
There will be no absolution and no peace.
I will reach out for her in the night and there will be nothing there. Only a sense that I am paying for something.