Fiction from the Vault: Elliot Perlman

8 September 2014 Elliot Perlman

Fiction from the Vault: Elliot Perlman

 

Good morning, again

 

Her sinuses are blocked and she doesn’t know. She would be embarrassed if she did. I shouldn’t know either. At four o’clock in the morning, with a new friend asleep beside me, I remember standing in the rain that night feeling angrily disconnected as you cried with incomprehensible frustration at my failure to agree that group therapy was just as likely to be of benefit to someone – someone unnamed – as private sessions. We had just eaten Thai food. It had been a good day in spite of the rain towards the end.

At four o’clock in the morning I haven’t slept at all but when she wakes up I will have to continue the date as though I had slept – part lover, part waiter, part Tonight Show host. After sheltering from the rain for a little while, sharp and brittle, apart, I could tell that you were going to cry, but you were not sad, not yet, you were frustrated and I was equally frustrated. It’s just that I don’t cry at those times. What time is it now? Way past four. She sprawls diagonally in bed, leaning toward me, assuming an inequitable familiarity. As tempting as it may be to mistake this for an accelerated form of love, I quickly attribute it to her youth, her previous experience or lack of it, her urgent need for

more experience. She is the young friend of a friend, my new friend, and I will learn soon that neither she nor I really need any rude awakenings at the moment. The neighbours have started making a racket again. They never care what time it is. They sell antique furniture not far from here and he gets up early every weekend to make it. His wife takes their young son into the garden where they can perfect his tantrums without the artificial restriction of walls. My new friend won’t be able to sleep through all of this. You never could.

Why was it so important to either of us? You were trying to tell me something and I was trying to tell you something else. We didn’t trust each other and that was reason enough to make each of us right. You thought I was too rigid. I thought you were too open – prone to putting your faith in something just because you wanted to, even when you had been shown it contained some logical flaws. But you are intelligent and the contradictions hurt you as much as the fact that it was me pointing them out. Your eyes became red.

I should have hugged you then in that rain but I was never one for public displays of affection, was I, except in comparison to you that is. I discovered this when we met. It had been such a long time since I had met someone who didn’t care what my star sign was.

“Good morning,” my new friend says with one eye open.

“How did you sleep?” I ask.

“Great,” she says putting her hand gently to my forehead. She’s breathing through her mouth now.

“Did they wake you?” I ask her, indicating toward next door. There is a throbbing in my head.

“Something did, I suppose. What is that noise?”

“It’s just a local amalgam of irritating sounds. There’s a hammer, a sander of course, and a circular saw. He’s building some really delightful Victorian pieces. They’ll be ready by noon. And that shrill hysteria which occasionally approximates language – that’s his wife and their new gargantuan son. It was bad enough before he was born but now it’s impossible. One day she was merely a scrawny suburban shrew enjoying the simple pleasures of humiliating her anaemic husband in the garden and then, all of a sudden, without giving anyone a chance to lodge an objection with the council, she

was pregnant. The foetus gestated for about an hour and a half and then there were three – a cacophony of three, first thing on a Sunday morning – with matching washstand, recently varnished, ideal for indoor plants that are hard of hearing. Would you like a cup of tea?”

I am avoiding her.

“They must be crazy to be up at this time making a noise like this,” she said.

They’re just selfish. The really crazy ones are on the other side. He sells insurance and she sells cosmetics. If she can’t restore your skin’s natural smoothness in six days, he has a policy that will refund 50% of the retail price. Of course, this is only available to approved customers and I think they know that I don’t approve at all.”

She nestles just below my shoulder. She thinks my attempt to amuse her is a compliment when actually it is the by-product of other things.

“I think you’re the craziest one in the street,” she says, snuggling beside me. But she doesn’t know you. Anyway, you’re not in this street any more.

It’s not true to say I didn’t sleep at all. I must have, no matter what contrary arguments are put by the throbbing in my head. My eyes would have moved rapidly, perhaps in time with my new friend’s breathing, because I dreamed that stupid dream again, the one that particularly embarrasses me. It must be based on something that happened or else on a composite of many things, because its form doesn’t vary. You would chide me if I told you about it, even if you were not somewhere else now. How can I put it? I have come home from somewhere. It is cold outside but you are waiting for me in this bed. It’s dark. I have this dream too often, I know that. Joseph Brodsky put it best, as though the dream was his:

For darkness restores what light cannot repair. There we are married, blest, we make once more the two-backed beast and children are the fair excuse of what we’re naked for.

There, I said it, albeit in someone else’s words. Are you flattered? Is it pathetic or just out of the question for us now? Many times I have dreamed of having children with you, not just sleeping with you, although, of course, I think about that too.

My new friend has drifted off to sleep again, this time in my arms. I can’t really move without disturbing her. That’s how it’s seemed since we got into bed all those hours ago. There is some kind of code or etiquette for sleeping with someone for the first time, but it is constantly changing and I never knew it in the first place. Do you keep any clothes on, even if only for a little while? Can the temperature of the room be taken into account? If you disrobe too quickly does it look presumptuous or crassly eager? You have to feign at least a little surprise at being in this position with someone when you’ve never known them this way before. On the other hand, you have to behave as if you’re under the influence of the other person’s body with an insatiable hunger to know their soft and hidden parts, as though this person was the apotheosis of everyone you had ever lusted after.

Our clothes are scattered on the floor. We could not have done it more randomly. Once the pretence that we might not sleep together had evaporated, everything else followed with the grace of a runaway train. If she brought her own condoms, I was too much of a gentleman to let her offer them. But when I reached for my own, it suddenly occurred to me that the ease and system of it might appear a little slick and too practised. I didn’t want to insult her gratuitously. So I kissed her as though she meant everything to me that I had wanted you to always mean to me, only without the need to protect myself, and she kissed me back, in gratitude, as though I was going to rid her of all the pain she had ever known and would tell me about when this was over. Although she was lovely and welcoming, her hair spilling out all over the pillow, I wished she wasn’t here. Consumed by her moist gratitude and what must have been exaggerated passion – it was as though she had come straight from a dentist’s waiting room having just read ‘Twenty Ways to Please Your Man’ – I felt under the same obligation not to climax as I will feel to drive her home at the end. She has decided to give older men a try and, as old as she makes me feel, on behalf of all the older men who won’t sleep with her but who will merely follow her step as she passes by, I must show her the utmost courtesy. That is the attribute used to ‘market’ us. It’s how older men get a look in.

The curtains are completely drawn, just as you liked them to be, so that we could trap the night way past midday, getting up only to have a pee, make a cup of tea or put on the Django Reinhardt you’d bought for me. You told me one Sunday, when we were running late for one of those daunting lunches at your mother’s, to act embarrassed when we arrived late in a way that would give your family the impression our lateness was a consequence of our carnal appetites. You said it would stop them asking why we were so late and, at the same time, give your mother some small pleasure at the promise of more grandchildren. Your mother liked me, especially next to your sister’s husband. But how does one suggest obliquely to someone’s mother that fucking is the fair excuse of what her roast has burned for? Anyway, it would have been a lie. We had been fighting (do you remember? – not about your smoking), and when I had finally chosen a shirt, you were still on your knees by the dresser, looking for the antidepressants.

I am trying to remember your cruel irrationality and that coldness you smuggled out of boarding school, hidden like everything else under your tunic, hidden so well I thought you were me. I have thought of you at home watching television by yourself with a plate of something colourful on your lap, unable to work the video recorder, and it has made me angry. It didn’t have to be like this. I have wondered what would really happen if I visited you. You’re so much better at this than me, I had thought. I hadn’t known why at first, so, stupidly, I had envied you in this regard. At four o’clock on other mornings, I have thought of you asleep in your house, the house I knew so well. I liked it more than you did and talked you out of selling it.

I am cold but if I reach for a T-shirt my new friend will wake up. She’s breathing through her mouth again. When she wakes up she will tell me about her past boyfriends, the early ones, the exotic ones, the ones who hurt her most. She will be lonely when she wakes up. I am sad for her. She deserves to have someone. I am stroking her hair very gently. I am sad for us too. I wonder if I am lonelier now than I was at the end? Are you lonely? Perhaps you don’t have time. There’s a crack in the curtains and the light is getting in. Of course, one day I will come around and see you.

You said that no one else ever made you so angry but you were flattering me and I didn’t believe you. I don’t feel it diminishes anything to admit that other people have made me cry but I’ll concede that admissions are hard. They are hard until you have to admit that the thing stares you in the face, until it’s all around you like the weather. It’s you now, just you.

Whatever is going on in my chest has woken her. My new friend looks up at me and sees you in my face. She doesn’t ask any questions. She doesn’t ask why you have made my eyes glisten in the light that comes through the gap in the curtains.

“Good morning,” she says. She asks this just when I don’t have enough love for the three of us.

“Good morning, again.”

 

Elliot Perlman’s first novel, Three Dollars, won the Age Book of the Year Award and the Fellowship of Australian Writers Book of the Year Award. Elliot lives in Melbourne where he also works as a barrister. This story was printed in The Big Issue Fiction Edition #244 Dec 2005 – Jan 2006

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