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©2018 Barren Magazine. An Alt.Lit Introspective.

Coming Home


by Laure Van Rensburg

Three hours and ten minutes before I can leave. Outside, it’s your favourite time of day. Those early hours that neither truly belong to night nor day when the upper edge of the sun touches the horizon, staining the low sky bright yellow and orange, while the upper part still looks bruised with shades of dark indigo and purple.

On our fourth date we sat on your balcony naked bodies wrapped up in your duvet, waiting.

“Right now is that moment when you can see the light of sun, but it hasn’t appeared over the horizon yet,” you told me.

“It’s beautiful.”

“You know it has a name; it’s called civil twilight.”

“You mean like the band?” I asked as your thumb drew little circles on the nape of my neck.

“I didn’t realise there was a band, but yes. I guess that’s where they got their name from.”

“I know something you don’t, that’s a first.” I smirked.

“Anyway, during civil twilight only the brightest stars and planets can be seen. Look,” you instructed me, guiding my eyes with your finger until I found the pinprick of light in that part of the sky that was still night. “That’s Venus.”

“Amazing,” I replied, sliding a cigarette between my lips.

“If we stay together, we’re going to have to do something about that.” You removed the unlit cigarette from my mouth before kissing me.

That morning on your balcony was five years ago. I stopped smoking for you that day, or maybe a week or so later.

The thought sticks in my mind, refusing to let go as I light up another cigarette. On our coffee table, an old saucer serves as an ashtray, already overflowing with disintegrated ashes and twisted filters. I pick it up and take it to the kitchen, not to clean up but out of an urge to do something and fill a few of the one hundred and ninety minutes, separating me from the moment I’m waiting for.

I drop the contents in the trash can. In the sink, our mugs still stand side by side. I stare at them and the remainder of stale coffee where little islands of green fuzz have formed on the surface.

Which one was yours? Did you use the “Morning, Sunshine” or the Garfield “I Hate Mondays”? I can’t remember; if only I had drunk mine with lipstick on to leave my future-self a clue so that I could pick up your mug and place my mouth where yours has been.

That morning I was already sitting at the kitchen table, sipping my coffee when you rushed through the room, slowing down just long enough for your lips to kiss the top of my head.

“I’m late,” you said.

“That’s not surprising. You academics make the worst timekeepers.”

“I’m offended.” You smiled before downing half your cup, standing by the sink. “I’m off, see you tonight.”

But you didn’t see me that night.

****

I walk across the house to the bedroom, swimming against the minutes that pile up between when I am and when I need to be. I occupy my hands by straightening the covers on my side of the bed, careful not to disturb yours and the pillow that still carries the indent of your head. Here you always sleep on your side, or your stomach, but you’re in another bed, lying on your back, and that’s so wrong. Are you thinking of me? Are you thinking? They tell me that you aren’t, but they don’t know you like I do, and how you are always thinking, unable to switch off.

****

We have done some of our finest thinking in bed. You were behind me, body pressed against mine during a Bank Holiday weekend that respected the great tradition of being grey and miserable. The back of my head nested against your clavicle, and you were talking to the top of my skull.

“I think we’ve peaked early.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, playing with the wedding ring barely a year old on your finger, while your thumb drew little circles on my shoulder.

“I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. Now, I’m afraid we only have the worse to look forward to.”

“You will have an affair with a student,” I said, playing along.

“How pedestrian of me,” you replied, pulling me closer against you.

“A male student.”

“Now we’re talking,” you answered, the warmth of your breath getting lost in my hair.

“What about me,” I asked as I flipped around to face you.

“You will develop a terrible gambling problem.”

“How much money will I lose?”

“All of our savings.”

“Hold on, we have savings? How much and where are they?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” you replied, your leg hiked over mine and your arms closing around me, your entire body putting an end to that conversation.

We played that game often — what’s the worst to come — we fooled ourselves thinking that by imagining the ugly and tragic we stripped them of their power. But our combined imaginations never matched the creativity life showed us four days ago.

****

As I tug a corner, a wink of light catches my eye, and I retrieve your glasses from the folds of the duvet. They are still in my hand as I cross the house again. Back in the kitchen, but why am I here? Whatever compelled me to come to this room I have forgotten. I stare at your glasses, and the greasy smudges my fingers have left on them. That’s why I have come here: to clean them. I will take them to you later on, and you’ll want them clean, even though they will tell me that you don’t need them.

Another eighty-nine minutes to go. I sink into the sofa, and a sharp poke straightens my back. I search the spaces between the cushions until my hand close on the culprit: your copy of Keats Selected Poems. I leaf through the worn pages, reading words and rhymes you love so much. They shift under my bleary eyes into something new, the life of the last four days filling them with new significance — sometimes, you need life to happen to give words new meanings. My eyes follow the lines of poetry, lifting them from the paper until I have absorbed them. They fill the hollowness of my ribcage with emotions, spreading their wings in my chest until they take all the space. The first drop splatters the words “let her rave”, wet paper wrinkling under pain. Words have power, you like to tell me. Maybe, I can use their power on you. I take the book with me as I leave the room.

I stand under the pelt of warm water, letting go. I am so sick of crying, but under the shower my tears are undistinguishable. If I can’t see them, they don’t really exist.

Yesterday, I was keeping busy when sheets of rain drummed on the window, inviting me. I ran outside to stand in the middle of the lawn and let it all out in a moment of thunder.

The constant water has made me the cleanest, saddest person I know. My new ritual has also cleared the house of the tissues that have been littering every surface, crumpled little white flags of my surrender to all the emotions inside of me.

As I get dressed, your glasses and the book lay on the table next to my phone, so I don’t forget them. The screen lights up at regular intervals, a Morse code alerting me that the outside world still exists and people in it are attempting to make contact. I won’t talk or see them until late afternoon, that is the rule I have established. The other one is that I don’t want anybody here in our house. Your brother has been the hardest to convince.

“I can stay if you want.”

“I don’t need help, I’m fine. I can manage,” I answered, busy clearing the table.

“Stop and sit down for a second.” He pushed out the chair next to him and waited until I sat down. He clasped his hands around mine. They looked all wrong, they weren’t yours. “It’s ok to ask for help,” he continued. “I can sleep on the couch. When was the last time you ate something?”

“Breakfast,” I answered, before realising it was five in the afternoon. “A big omelette, so I didn’t feel like lunch.” In truth, I had two pieces of dry toast and six cups of coffee. The raised eyebrow etched on his face called into question my truthfulness.

“Please Duncan, I cannot deal with someone in our home right now. Thank you, but no.”

He agreed with a sigh after I promised to call him at any time if I needed anything.

He means well, but I just can’t bear having other people, even family, clutter our home. Their presence and good intentions hang around the place, like cobwebs I keep getting stuck in.

The minutes standing in my way have finally run out as I lock the front door. I hurry down the street, alert to every sound surrounding me: the whirrs of acceleration, the screeching of brakes. Each one pursuing me, I lengthen my strides, until I dive into the Uber waiting for me. I slam the door, before sinking into the seat and comforting silence. I pat the pocket of my coat, feeling the shape of your glasses under the grey wool. You’re still here with me. I arrange my face into an I’m-not-up-for-small-talk expression that the driver catches when he checks his rear view mirror. He turns the radio volume up a notch in response and leaves me be. As the traffic grows heavy so do the surrounding noises, and so does my grip on the edge of the seat. They wake up a new kind of fear that lives under the surface of my skin, stirring it into shivers and goosebumps.

If only I had been aware of them four days ago, when it would have mattered. We had just left the brasserie where we met for an impromptu lunch date. My meeting ran late, and I found myself in your area. I called you on the off-chance and you turned out to be available. We walked down the street, fingers laced. I was pulling you towards a shop window when your hand was ripped away from mine. Next thing, I was face down on the pavement, and you were ten meters away in the middle of the road. I never heard or saw the car coming, and I never saw it take you away, just the strength of your hand pulling out of mine.

You joked during the entire ambulance ride to the hospital, and I scowled at you for not taking the whole accident more seriously. My knotted brow fuelled your bouts of laughter. The paramedic riding with us at the back called you “a very lucky man” at regular intervals.

****

The car leaves me by the main entrance and I don’t linger outside, heading straight for the double doors that part before swallowing me. I walk head down to avoid the look of hospital staff. I wonder if they have a name for me. Eyes riveted to the ground I count the lino tiles between the entrance and your room — two hundred and seventy-eight. One hundred and forty-seven less than from your room to the cafeteria. Although, I avoid the cafeteria unless the need for caffeine is too great. I still hold it responsible, and its endless queue, and the variety of choices.

****

On the first day, I left you on propped-up on pillows with a nurse and doctor fussing over you.

“You go and get a drink, I’ll be fine,” you told me. “Plus, it’s not like I’m going anywhere.” You added a wink as a good health reassurance.

Even though there was a line at the cafeteria, I still hadn’t decided if I wanted a flat white or a mocha when my turn came, that was the big dilemma that held me up. I got back to your floor munching on the impulse buy Danish that caught my eye as I waited for my drink; the doctor waited for me in the hallway. He ushered me inside an empty waiting room, barren apart from a few potted plants and strong antiseptic smell, that hospital scent that should make people feel safe but instead made me feel sick. He was speaking but my attention was on those plants, were they fake or real?

“I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

My mouth was full of pastry and cooked apples and his full of medical terms that made no sense — a swelling of the brain, something about subdural, about being impossible to predict.

“I think you’ve got the wrong person,” I explained, sending crumbs flying. “My husband just has a broken clavicle, ribs and some bad cuts.”

“Mrs. Prescott…”

“No, it’s alright, it could happen to anyone.” I smiled to prove I wasn’t mad at him for his mistake. You were fine; you winked at me before I left. People who are not fine, don’t wink. “My husband’s fine…”

Something in his face changed, a drop of the corner of his mouth, a slight twitch of his eyelid, pity contorting the normally controlled features of his face. My cup fell but not as fast as my heart free-falling in my chest on a collision course with my pelvic floor. I ran down the hallway and flung the door of your room open. I was greeted by an eerie stillness, only disturbed by the faint beep of the machine, counting the beats of time and your breath. In my absence, all colours had drained away from you, your skin as white as the sheet tightly encasing you in your hospital bed.

They asked if there was someone they could call for me. I immediately thought of you. You were my person in case of an emergency, but obviously I couldn’t call you, and it was ridiculous because you were the emergency and still you would have known what to do. I stifled a giggle that pulled their brows together. You would have got it and laughed too. I could imagine them in the Doctors” lounge later on, sitting down having a drink and telling their colleagues about the laughter and the crazy lady they got to deal with — the Miss Havisham of St George Hospital. Perhaps, that was their name for me. Maybe, I should come and sit by your bed in my wedding dress. Anything to get you to wake up.

There could have been only one doctor, but I always felt surrounded by a group of white lab coats. You need to make a decision, they kept telling me. But how can I make such an important one without talking it through with you first?

****

I’m waiting for the lift that will take me to you — three floors or sixty-three steps if I take the stairs — when the wife of the driver walks through the main entrance. The smile slides from her face as she sees mine, recognising me from when the police took my statement, and she drops her head. Is she counting the tiles of the hallway too? My hands balled into fists, nails digging into the flesh of my palms.

Abandoning the lift, I push the side door open and rush up the stairs until I have no breath left in my lungs, hypoxia burning a hole in my chest. The accident isn’t her fault, yet I hate her. I hate her because after all of this she still has a husband.

I grip the handrail to stop swaying — a ship caught in a storm, taking water. All the emotions pouring in, flooding me. In so fast, I don’t know what they are, I can’t recognise them anymore. Unable to catch my breath, I sit on step number thirty-eight until the tide recedes, and my lungs work again.

I step into your room. You lay flat and fixed to that bed, the only motion the subtle rise of your chest dictated by the mechanics of the ventilator. It isn’t you in that bed, you are always moving, fidgeting, even when you read your finger taps the back of books. You just inflate like the lilo we used on our last holiday to Portofino, that lime green plastic, pulsating under the air you blew in.

At first, I refused to leave your side, not wanting to miss the moment you would wake up. When it didn’t happen, I left to go home. It would be so like you to wait until I’m halfway home to finally wake up. But this didn’t happen either. I’ve bargained with you — if you wake up, you can have custody of the TV remote for the rest of our life, you can drag me to all the boring lectures you want, and I won’t complain. I’ve gone over your head and also bargained with the universe, or whoever is in charge — if they wake you up, I will give money to charity, I will stop drinking, I will stay home and look after you, I will never ask for anything else ever again. Still no changes.

Instead, we have fallen into a new routine where you sleep, and I sit by your bed, and the hours that are deemed non-visiting mark the time I need to wait before I can come sit again. Doctors stop by at regular intervals, mainly now to ask me to sign forms and give pieces of you away. How can I do that? Your heart only makes sense inside of your chest. And, you’ll need it whenever you wake up.

I look at you and see you on that beach the night we had two bottles of white wine at dinner. You grabbed my hands and spun me around fast, so fast. We gathered momentum until we lost control and you laughed as you shouted, “Oh no, things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” I did not share your enthusiasm for Yeats” words as I hit the ground on all fours before throwing up.

Now every day the centre of my world cannot not hold, and things keep falling apart. Each morning I wake up, and for a full second everything is still and whole like a perfect plum, round and smooth. Then, I remember that my centre is gone, and the world spins and collapses around me, a plum without a pip to hold it together.

“Hey, honey,” I say, sniffing hard to keep the tears at bay.

Light pours in through the window, bleaching the edges of furniture and equipment in the room, bleaching the angles of your face, the same way tragedy has bleached the edges of your flaws, dulling the annoying pebble in my shoe until it becomes a grain of sand, and its poke is missed. I would gladly suffer through your disgusting habit of clipping your toenails in bed. I would happily kiss those toes, take them in my mouth, just to feel them wiggle with life on my tongue.

I pull the chair towards the head of your bed. I retrieve your glasses from my pocket and place them on your bedside table. Although, they are not really your bed or your table, they are the hospital’s and you’re stuck in this room, merely an occupant, not an owner. Your bed is in our bedroom, where the sheets still retain the creases and scent of your body and the pillow the indent of your head. Your room is in our house, where I pause before touching any objects because everything is a memory of you, and they are all waiting for your return.

I settle down, open the book, holding it with one hand as I slip the other in yours.

“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art,” I recite.

My eyes read Keats” words and my mouth allows them to soar in the citrus scented air. I imagine them diving, burrowing deep, finding you under the tubes, and the skin and the broken bones, and the pooling blood to lift you the way they have lifted me earlier today. My mind and my heart concentrate on your hand, waiting for the moment a tremor or a squeeze will let me know, you are coming home.

Header photograph © Lesley-Anne Evans.

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