Find the Sun

On a good day I like the sun. I like its warmth. On a good day fruit tastes good, I get distracted by skin, and enjoy a cool breeze or the feeling of shade. I like how water moves, and earth smells. On a good day there’s no tapping on the window; if it rains it brushes gently on the panes, making little puddles on the sill. I can drown cigarette butts as I go. They curl up; soggy, limp and unthreatening.

But still on my desk it’s there, scratched deep and mean into cheap, light wood: ‘God is dead’. It’s not carved out of any youthful angst – atheistic preening has never been my style – but a very real, deep sense that any ordering principle in life has been stripped out and struck down. Like a great gash or tear exists where the centre should be, and nothing is real; certainly not God. If there’s anything at all it hangs splintered, rocking useless in the wind.

On a bad day I can barely speak, can’t think out of sheer terror. Bee always used to say she could tell when it was coming on – I’d do a thing with my lip; sucking and chewing on it, eyes spinning and flitting around like compass needles in my head. Lots of times I bite so hard I put a hole in it and grimace through the blood like some crazy prizefighter. I’ve seen myself in the mirror like that and it’s not pretty. My teeth look deadly, like tombstones. I scratch myself on the arm, and the morning after realise that I’ve flayed myself in some brutal self-punishment. It was great having her around then, for that, because she’d put cream on my lips and stroke the hot, raw bits on my arm. Her fingertips felt like ice cubes on my skin; I could feel it fizzle and spit.

But when it gets bad there was nothing even she could do. First I get anxious, my heart beats too hard and breath comes even harder. A tremor, a faint wave from the distance that grows stronger and stronger the more I try to ignore it, bringing the horizon closer with each minute that passes until it’s terror crashing down on me and I can’t escape. It really is physical, like being hit in the chest or held underwater. Each time I kick and flail and scream back it grips me tighter and shakes, leaves talon marks and blood on my body and brain that I don’t realise until the next time I’m ripped open in familiar places. Around the edges there’s always voices too; some dark, merciless language that sounds like thorns. It’s loud too, louder than anything. An angry tongue lashing in my ear, screaming everything I hate about myself back at me like I didn’t know already YOU’RE WEAK, SOFT, BROKEN, A SAD CASE, A BLANK SPACE AFTERTHOUGHT NOTHING NO WORDS TO YOUR NAME AND ONE PERSON WHO CARES SO SHE LOOKS LIKE A SAINT TO PEOPLE WHO HATE YOU! And I swear I only sometimes believe it, but when it gets into me like a rusty nail there’s nothing I can do but sit in a corner and stare till it stops. Sometimes I yell, but the voice is always louder.

I remember once when Bee and I went out, we walked from home up the hill to some cheap, tacky sushi place that did a $5 afternoon special – you know, to get rid of the unsold stuff before it goes off stinking in the summertime heat– and I was going to pay because I’d finally gotten a job. Nothing fancy, I was lugging bags and checking in entitled old wolves at a semi-flash hotel in the city. It was easy for me, because it required no serious thinking and a relative imperviousness to condescension, which I managed by imagining every old boy who talked at me about attitude and gumption dead, and their wives – who patted my shoulder with delicate, gloved hands – trying desperately to hide the label on the cheap fur coats they wore out into the street. It worked, for a time, until they got me on a rough day and I threw a suitcase after some bastard who called me ‘champ’ a few too many times and he called down to management to complain.

That afternoon, when I’d just signed the contract and had the start date in my sights, I felt a shadow flit over me. We’d sat down and ordered, talking in nothings about the job and week ahead when my voice caught, wavering for a moment. My heart punched a quick one-two inside my chest and accelerated, grazing up against an edge of fear that crept in through soy sauce and frying smells. Bee saw me stiffen just a bit; my eyes darted around, off the walls and ceiling – had it gotten lower? – and locked onto hers, now darkened but weary, with heavy bags underneath the blue. They flashed black. She began to mutter at me in a low, calm voice, telling me to relax and slow down, to breathe, to keep on breathing and keep looking in one spot. I chose a spot on the table where the varnish had chipped away in the shape of a rough flower. I moved my head around, let the edges warp and dip as the whispering started. But for some reason, this time, they didn’t sound like a torrent, a dam bust through to crash down and drown me. Bee’s voice rose up, over the top though she wasn’t speaking any louder, and while the flower’s petals blurred its centre – at its heart – stayed clear. I pushed back, gently, carefully as her words got stronger. I felt my breath slow, my lungs and chest soften and relax. The voices swirled and gently broke against the iron core of Bee, receding. Room sounds got louder, the lights warmer, traffic outside fell back and levelled out and the world rounded, shrugging off the jaggedness which moments before I’d felt beginning to tear. And when I looked back up there she was, smiling with clear eyes. Her hair, cropped short and tight around her jaw, shone through with all the different shades of the sun, and the dusty freckles on her cheeks – a delicate sprinkle at their highest point – caught the light that danced across them.

“Back?”

And I was, for once, at last, with her. That was a good week. The best I can remember.

*

After I lost my job at the hotel I was pretty low. In some ways it was nice to have the space again – me and employment never really got along – but the more I sat around on my arse doodling, or watching old horror movies, or lying on my bed counting the stains on the roof, the worse I felt. I’ve always said that work is stifling, though I’m probably more lazy than creatively suffocated. I called Bee up to see if she might want to grab something cheap to eat. She’d been a bit short lately, a bit distant. But in compensating for my lack of motivation with extreme energy and drill-sergeant discipline, I could hardly hold that against her.

“Hey, wanna get something? I’m bored and hungry. Feeling pretty grim.”

“You’re always bored and you’re usually shitty.”

“Yeah but now I’m hungry too.”

“And who’s paying?”

“Well I could but…”

“Yeah.”

* click *

“Um…”

She’d never done that before.

And so I lay back in bed. The pillow stank but I couldn’t be bothered to wash it. A bit of alone time would be good, I suppose. Means I can get my head straight, maybe read a bit, fire off some applications and get back into a job somewhere. She has been busy – works 50-hour weeks plus uni – and it’s crazy she’s got time to spend with a bum like me at all, let alone go get lunch whenever I feel like it. Still I wonder what she’s doing. She’s probably sitting on her bed, drenched in sun, her brows pulled together in a little pouty frown as she nuts over an essay on something useful, something tough. She’ll be set up with crossed legs, her computer facing the street and the trees outside that she loves so much. White curtains and girly pink bedspread she’s had since she was 15, complete with flowers and big shiny stars. She claims to hate it but could never throw it out. She’s sentimental like that, underneath her practicality. She’s got a cactus on the windowsill that I bought for her; a two-year anniversary present. When I gave it to her we’d laughed, and thrown around all sorts of stupid clichés. Our love is strong! Could never really die! It didn’t need much but just to exist, to thrive and grow. We were young, out of school, and full of all this type of bullshit.

Bee reckoned I was smart, that I’d change the world in some new and profound way. And I did kind of believe her, full of ideas, words and delusions that I was. In some ways I still do, even though we’ve both grown a bit tired, in waiting. The bad days and voices make it so much harder, but of course we didn’t have to worry about it then.

*

All through that week I sat in my room and sent emails. To bars, shops, cafes, hotels, any place I could switch off my brain and smile at customers for a few hours a day. Must have sent over 100, and each one that was answered went absolutely nowhere. Every now and again I’d call Bee, or text her, to check up, but she was flat-out and didn’t always reply.

It was about this time that she started spending more time with Julian. He went to school with one of her oldest friends, and had sometimes cropped up at parties and dinner as a plus one; friend of a friend. He was a tall, blonde guy, handsome in an unremarkable way. With thick wavy hair, big brown eyes and a light dusting of hair on a roundish chin, he looked like a gentle Labrador who needed a pat and a long walk. He was softly spoken and quietly intelligent; he’d make a joke and then dart his eyes around furtively, relaxing if people laughed, and only occasionally running his mouth if he was drunk or uncomfortable. He had a funny way of doing it; a stammer then a blustery torrent of words, holding a smile like some jumped-up mannequin who’d finally found some purchase. Bee said he’d been through the same shit as me, that he’d spent a bit of time in hospital staring at walls and muttering. Whether he did or not I’ve never really known, but he did have a look about him sometimes like he was scared, or distracted with something nobody else could see, and I understand that better than anybody I know. So I liked him. Besides, it was good for her to get out and see people; she was always studying or working, or with me when she wasn’t doing that. I liked that she’d found a new friend, a normal, non-fucked up friend, someone to talk to and keep her occupied. Someone to keep her together. She’d definitely been down since I got fired and I hated the look that greyed her eyes, growing harder and colder; a little more each day.

But after two weeks of grinding away, same every day, with nothing much really falling in my direction, the rejections began to pile up so I drank a bit – something that doctors really don’t like – and started getting twitchy, worse than I had in a while. I was still a loser, broke and unemployed, and Bee was busier than she’d ever been. I saw her a couple of times for coffee, each time she rushed off after an hour to go and meet Julian. We had less words for each other.

“How’s things?”

“Good”

“What are you doing?”

“Just watching TV, though we’re meant to be studying”

Did she blush?

“Sweet, cool. Tell him I say hi. Love you.”

“Bye!”

She trilled it in two notes and walked off scratching behind her ear, and shaking her head. Her hair beat sideways time as with her steps.

And then one day – must’ve been almost a month by then – she came over. She was humming as she entered my room, pulled open the curtains and then sat on the bed with her hands in her lap, tapping the knuckles of her left hand with the fingers on her right. When I sat down next to her she leaned her head on my shoulder and asked how I was doing in a dreamy, far-off voice. Like it wasn’t fucking clear. I’d spent the best part of a week charging around the streets outside with a warm bottle in my hand, batting the side of my leg or swatting at flies that hit my face like rocks and were as loud as jet engines. That morning I’d sat next to the road, blasting music while scraping gnarled vines and thunderbolts in the light, dry dust that puffed up with each jab of my finger. Faces and shapes bulged out of the clouds, and burnt themselves into the back of my eyes. I’d become the one that your mum points out when you’re young enough to listen, telling you to “smile, but always keep walking”. The Boogeyman, with dirt under his fingers. And here she comes, the lightest ray of sunshine, bringing all the presumptions and cheer of outside to nuzzle up against me like a cat.

“How’s Julian?”

She tossed her head.

“He’s…fine.”

Her voice had a hairline crack. I could smell his sweat on her neck.

The ringing in my ears – it had been getting louder for hours – stopped. Silence for a moment, then it roared back. A sonic boom, dynamite, rocked my mind’s blackest depths.

And so I flipped.

Even now it’s clear as day. I can see myself standing, chest heaving, with dust and feathers hanging in the air as if frozen in time. I can see the cracks in the surface of my glass bedside table, little splinters and flakes glinting on the floor like stars. Blood on my knuckles and wall – not hers – strangely dark, smeared and ugly. Shaking. I’ve got barking in my ear, all the sights and sounds of the world pour in as a technicolour rush, one clear picture of that round face with kind eyes – though I imagined him looking more smug than he is – and Bee’s voice screaming, almost songlike, soars over the din:

“AT LEAST HE’S NOT A FUCKING PSYCHO!”

And I begin to laugh, staring.

I must have looked terrifying. I hate to think about it now, and I agree with her to a point. I’d replied: “No, I suppose not” and giggled some more, which was stupid bravado. Because after she slammed the door – dented and bruised where I’d thrashed it in fury – I collapsed in a heap, sobbing and keening like a wild animal. I stayed there for hours, maybe days, eyes shut against the sights and sounds that beat me to a pulp. I cried, yelled and pounded the floor, covered in my own tears, blood and sweat, until finally, in mercy, sleep crept in. I shuddered and scratched, twitched and moaned and woke several times in the night to terrifying spectres that yawned and roared and stretched over and took me; the end of the world in an ocean of darkness. But when I woke to the sounds of birds and lawnmowers – the quiet hymn of suburban weekends – things were different. I picked up my phone, lying shattered where I’d thrown it at the wall some time in distant memory, and saw two words: ‘we’re done’. I wiped my face and shot back two letters then sat on my desk, facing the wall and letting the sun warm my back. The curtains were still open, where Bee had left them. I sucked in some air and held it, breathed deep again, and again, and again. The room was a tangled, broken mass of angles and edges, and the low morning sun threw mangled shadows up against the wallpaper shreds that were all that was left.

*

Later on I learned that Bee had run out, straight to Julian’s place, with whom she had been sleeping for a bit less than a month. She spent four days straight at his house. I can only imagine. And when I heard what had happened I was sad, obviously, because I loved her very much. I couldn’t think too hard about what they were doing.

But like everything, it passed. I found another job at a bookstore, and started in the warehouse with scabbed-up knuckles, cutting open boxes of bright, smooth, glossy bestsellers and sticking prices on the back. All day I smelt clean dust and fresh paper, ended with a slight tang of glue at the back of my throat. I kept quiet, made some friends, stole enough glances at the inside of the books to write some stuff of my own that only I can understand. I haven’t spoken to Bee since, but I hope she’s happy. The voices are still there every now and again, the world takes on ugly shapes and sometimes I panic, and scratch at the scars that stare up from the back of my hands. But these days I can close my eyes and think of that morning, the light and the birdsong. I breathe and rub my fingers along the ruffled corner of a paperback. It usually works.

*

Right now it’s raining, which I like. I bought new furniture, but the window is still cracked in a fine lattice about the size of a piece of paper, up to the top left-hand corner. It lets in a little bit of water, which gently rolls down the inside of the glass to rest on the windowsill, pearly beads that glow in the moonlight. The rest washes the outside in great sheets, and the hum is gentle, rising and falling like the tide. If I look down, just at the edge of the wood those sharp, angry words are still there. Though they don’t make me feel like they once did. ‘Dead’ is scratched out and worn smooth to the touch.

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