Last week I read that scientists have predicted with almost certainty that the sun will explode in five million years. I sat straight up, almost knocking over the breakfast table and looked around at my life as if for the last time. It all felt so final. No one would get out. I haven’t read the news in a newspaper since. Instead, I start at the back before giving up half-way through, relying on my wife to tell me today’s edition of the end of the world before we drive off together into town and our respective days.
“What are you doing in there?” Joyce says through the bathroom door. “I got to do my legs for tonight.”
“I’m going to do my beard!” I shout over the shower’s hiss, “He missed a bit again.”
“Harry, for God’s sake, go to a different place already. You pay good money and then do half of it at home and leave the sink looking like a monkey had a bath in there!”
I don’t say: “So no different to after your legs then!”
I do say: “Bryan’s a friend! I’ve been going for years!”
“Fine,” she continues, her point still not sufficiently made, “then just go for a beer with him. You aren’t dating him, Harry.”
I clamber out of the shower and open the bathroom door. A bloom of steam unfurls forward.
“Just give me two minutes, ok, and the sink’ll be good as new.”
“As good as seventeen something years ago? I hope not, Harry, it was made of splinters and sawdust.” She turns away, taking the towel off her shoulders, shaking her head at just how difficult it is to do the easiest things.
Back in the bathroom, I find my face in the mirror. Rubbing my beard back and forth, I search for the one hair that always defies Bryan’s trimmer. If I don’t find it now, I will spend all day rubbing my face – in the car, on the sofa, over the saucepan – driving myself, and Joyce, mad. My silver scissors snap the air in hungry anticipation. Every moment or so, I wipe the condensation with the corner of my towel. It is like seeing my face anew – bright, clean, all lines and wrinkles present, and then slowly steam clouds my reflection, my features blur, who I am is lost. And then nothing, just white hot air.
Most people say I look good for my age, thirty-nine. I swim, which helps. We don’t have kids, too, which might mean something. My wife is a year older than me, which was funny at the time but has begun to irritate her now she is, as she remarks, “over half-way, alone”. We flew to Puglia for her fortieth. For mine, we’ll go to Patagonia. Next year we will go to places beginning with R – we hope to finish the alphabet before we cannot travel anymore. I’m pushing for Rio; for some madly romantic reason, Joyce wants Russia, and as it is her money, I would bet we will be in Moscow next July. Her father, a wall of a man who could barely read, made a fortune with a basic rubber factory he had inherited from his father. A lot of hard work and lot of good luck later, he sold it for millions to a multinational tyre company. This kind of thing happens a lot apparently, although I know it will never happen to me – I work in corporate insurance, the place where surprises cannot happen. Some years ago, Roy, her father, died of lung complications easily attributed to factory air and a pack a day, and all the money went straight to Joyce, the only child. She bought a load of bonds, paid off our mortgage and threw the rest into our joint account. Every six months or so I think about buying a new car but even though I have Joyce’s happy permission, I never go through with it. She hasn’t cried since the funeral. They weren’t close. And she never forgave him for what she felt was just long-term suicide – “If you care for someone, if you love them, if you want to spend your life with them, how can you do something for so long that will damage them, damage them forever? You just don’t.”
I never liked the man – he treated me with lazy contempt from the moment we met, half convinced I wanted her money – money I knew nothing about as his factory looked like it was more likely to collapse than make me rich. Her mother had given up on his fourteen-hour days and yellow skin a decade before, moving in with an almost-famous lawyer in the next city along. We see her for Christmas at her retirement home where she will tell me the same stories and ask me about ‘Robert Nelson’, a man she is certain I know well and who can help with the desperate work needed on her plumbing. Joyce cries when we leave. My parents are long gone and long remembered. This was back in the days when no one used seatbelts. From them I inherited the usual drawl of middle-age life and left my uncles to shift through the legal debris. The proceedings of what was sold I used as a down payment for this place, a ramshackle old house lost in the suburbs with wheezing floorboards and windows that didn’t touch. I was just out of college (an engineer of some promise and minor acclaim but got the first job I could) and Joyce was teaching part-time. For us, it was like we had bought our piece of life. We ran around the crumbling rooms calling out for each other. We played hide and seek drunk on fake champagne. It took us two days but we made love in every room. Now, of course, the house has been completely refitted. It shines. The windows pucker close. Only at night creeping to bed after a forbidden drink and a couple of pages of a novel I will never finish do those floorboards betray me with their whine and slurs.
Through the thinning steam, I see my phone light up. Joyce and I have conveniently breakable laws to stop technology harming our relationship: Only paper allowed at the kitchen table, nothing ever used while driving, and maximum of one hour in front of the computer screen. And no hidden calls.
I have to swipe the screen clean with my towel. It is hard to read the hazy text, the words like lights in the dark when I take my glasses off. It is a voice message, 0.57 seconds long. My ears scan the house for sounds of my wife.
Now, of course, the best and wisest thing to do would be to erase the message then and there. Delete the message; block the number. Leave the bathroom and return to a guilt and regret-free world. And of course, I don’t. I feel something. With the tap running and the door safely closed, I press play and push the phone deep down into my ear. It begins with a throat clearing and I believe I would recognise that sound anywhere in the world.
“Umm…it’s me.” Yes, it really was. Everything becomes high-distance. “I am sorry for calling, sure you are busy with work, but I wouldn’t call you if it wasn’t important, Baby.” Baby? My heart froze. “But I really need some help, really. Phil has been acting crazy again, really crazy.” Phil? Again? My shoulders slumped, my heart started again – this wasn’t for me; it was all a mistake, the wrong buttons pushed, the wrong ears listening. “He says I got to pay him all I owe him by tonight or he’s going to take it anyway how. And you know what he is like. I think [sobs]…I mean…I’m really scared, Mike! I’m [more sobs, the sound of car horn]…I gotta go, Baby, I gotta go. But you gotta help me [inaudible shout and the horn again]…send me a message, don’t call, I’ll be at Jonesy’s tonight after work… [the horn, this time longer, and a car engine viciously revved]…please help, Baby, please…”
I stand in shock. A breeze would knock me over. Water runs on down the sink and away. The steam has almost gone and I can make out my face – I look both older and younger. The past has broken into the present. My eyes are wild with memories and possibility. Yet I am not that person anymore and have this face to prove it.
“Harry! Are you lost in there or what?“
The expression ‘heart in mouth’ has never been more apt. I swear that tonight I will brush ventricles out of my teeth. I drop my phone into the sink and squirm with every smack of plastic on porcelain.
“Sorry! I’m coming! Hold on!”
“What are you doing in there?”
I release the door and see the look of a woman who has better things to do. Disappointment, jealousy, rage – the unavoidable compromise of long-term love.
“Jesus, Harry. I don’t care! Just hurry up! Have you finished?” But before I can answer, she shoulders past me, pushing me out, the door closed with a snap, my turning face sees only the blur of a towel. My phone is in the sink. I stand there frozen as if a gun was between my eyes. The door rips open.
“Your phone, Harry. Soaked. How many times do I have to tell you no phones in the bathroom!”
“Yes, sorry,” I mumble, and flee from the closing door into the safe trench of the study, my body and mind a mess of atoms.
As soon as I hear the boiler begin to burp and churn, I search online for her profile. My blood halts. From my desk drawer I take out my secret scotch and drink it straight from the bottle as I stare at the screen. She has changed. Her attitudes, always fiercely liberal, have clearly become stronger, her page full of leftist slogans and campaigns. There are photos of her at rallies, marches, even protesting outside an abortion clinic. Her hair is shorter, cut into a bob but the ends curled and coloured. Those same blue eyes piecing through every photo. That scandalous laugh caught in her profile picture, a laugh that would make people stare at our table and both smile and frown.
I have never cheated on my wife. Never. I am sure she has never cheated on me. And I am sure we have both come close. To never have been tempted would surely be stranger, somehow worse, a deadness of the imagination, a one-sided soul. Once, perhaps five years ago, as we began to make love, Joyce found a blonde hair in my boxer shorts. She screamed and slapped before locking herself in the bedroom. She says if she had found a knife, I would have had no more clothes. It was rough. I pleaded and I promised and I eventually I persuaded her it was all some unfunny cosmic gag. There was no reason to believe me because I couldn’t explain. I just had to hang on hope, hang on her trust. Many future horrors were vowed if anything similar happened again. For weeks she would eye me suspiciously, call me at strange moments, drop comments when anything to do with hair came up, forbid me from kissing her in private, buy expensive clothes without telling me, generally make my life drag until she figured I had suffered enough. Even now, however, it has yet to heal, any approach to turn hurt into humour swatted aside with a blast from furiously intense eyes.
I have another shot of whiskey. I can feel a pleasant lethargy spread. I also feel – down past my stomach, in the midst of my guts – a surge of danger, a flush of risk. Somewhere somehow a decision has been made, was probably made some time ago, and now all I can do is deal with the consequences.
I have never cheated on my wife. Never really come close. When I was at college, I fell in love with a girl with the brightest blue eyes. For about a year I am not sure I thought about anything else. From the moment I saw her in the campus bar I was like a full bath with both taps turned on. I introduced myself during one lunch break, bought her lunch for the bogus favour of her lending me a library book I said I urgently needed. We became friends and then close friends and that was all. She had a boyfriend, a typical bad boy who would treat her, and presumably his other girlfriends, with predictable contempt. For all my well-made arguments and sly persuasion, she never left him and I just became the one who listened. After one dinner, we went back to hers and smoked a joint. She fell asleep on the sofa and I placed my hands on her cheeks and held them there like I was going to kiss her. I looked at her for what felt like a life. I did the same thing on my wedding day with my wife. How do we learn how to touch each other? Are we not, on some blameless level, all aggregates of adultery?
I play the message again, the volume low, her voice some desperate whisper from another world. As it plays, I try to picture her saying these words. The fear in her face, here body clenched as if awaiting assault. I feel second hand pain. My mind is awash with memory. There is an odd buzz in my blood, my heart feels lower, hidden, primed. But where to start? There are too many questions – who was in the car? Who is Mike? What money and how much? Who and what is Phil? Who is Baby? Who was supposed to hear this message? And, most importantly – is she aware of her mistake or will she now face the moment of truth alone, her eyes desperately searching for help that will never come?
I look at my watch. Four pm. Saturday afternoon. Where does she work if she works at this hour? I check her profile. An independent bookshop the other side of town. I search for any ‘Jonesy’s’ in the same area. Nothing. I try ‘Jones’. A million people with stuff to sell or things to say. I try ‘bar pub restaurant café Jones Jonesy’s’. Davey Jones Locker, a bar with no website. I put two and two together and presume that this is Phil or where Phil can be found. Not hard to get to, according to the map, but not a place I know well. I sit back and breathe. My mind makes subconscious calculations. I have another hit of scotch. I listen to the message again. An old friend needs help. Help I could give. Who could say no?
Before my wife finishes in the shower – the boiler is still digesting its duty – I fling on some jeans and a new polo shirt. At this point, I am not sure what I am doing, or how I will do it. I put on my good shoes. I find my wallet and my keys. I walk from room to room, my body running on pure nerves, my mind foreseeing a dozen futures a minute.
“Joyce!” I yell at the bathroom door.
“I’m,” and it is as this second where my heart begins to hurt, “I…”
I don’t say: “I love you. You are the finest thing to ever happen to me. I would, without a moment’s thought, walk into hell for you. But I have to go and see about someone who meant a lot to me many years ago. I don’t expect you to understand. I don’t expect anything. But I have to go. It is like a promise I made to myself and now have to keep.”
I do say: “I’m going out for a drink. With Bryan. Going to get him to cut my beard again!”
Somehow I even laugh.
“OK! I’ll be home late. Drinks with the girls after practice. Eat out or get a pizza. Love you.”
I forgot. She is learning Salsa. I didn’t even need to lie. My soul twists.
“I love you, too.” I say, and then slink away. I pass our bedroom. A shaft of light looms out of the door. She must have left the lights on. But when I pass, it is only the windowed glow left over from the still-unfinished day.
I drive as if someone is watching me. My gear changes are long and smooth. I signal early. I give way. I pull over to dump a lot of breath mints into my mouth. There seems little chance that my heart is still inside my body – it pushes and pulls like a wild animal on a leash. The city becomes less rich the more I drive: roads bump more; shops are just faded names under long iron doors; people sit on the street waiting for buses that have never arrived. I check my doors are locked and shudder – as bad as this area is, it is still better than my old neighbourhood during college. And I was as poor or poorer. I keep driving, my phone between my legs, the shining map pulsing my way forward.
A famous supermarket chain looms ahead and I signal. I don’t so much park as just stop driving in a designated space. I breathe. Around me young families in faded sportswear push trolleys full of soft drinks to tired cars. I get out and keep my head down. Trying to stroll, I feel taut and lopsided. How much is enough? What am I even going to do? At the cash machine I press ‘any other amount’ and take out the maximum. I will have to say I was robbed. Call the police. Cancel the card. My mind is to the brink with madness. Now the money is in my hand, a large part of me now wants to run away. Inside me, however, is some burning, unanswerable force. It might be where courage comes from. Why people can run at tanks. Last winter, I ran through roads when I heard my wife was sick. I brushed aside oncoming cars like flies. I ran up eight hospital floors in a blink. Last week I read a mother had lifted up the truck that had run over her child. She tore all her muscles. Mundane marvels. We are all capable.
I arrive and park down a side street lined by overflowing dumpsters. The bar is ahead of me, a thin flash of neon between two cracked high-rise buildings. There is little to show it is in fact open. A grey truck slumps outside, obscene images scrawled across the dirty windows. It is that kind of time when you are not sure if you need your lights on. I breathe out, the windscreen slowly becoming cloudy. Perhaps she has already come and gone? Maybe Baby has saved the day with a bank loan? Perhaps Phil has backed down, extended his deadline, been detained by the thugs who no doubt work above him. Now I have arrived and seen the reality of this situation, I quickly lose strength and passion. After all, if this is what her life has led to, even my help won’t be help enough. And deep down what do I want from this? An affair? A trip in a time machine? A sense that, contrary to all obvious evidence, I am still capable of vital deeds, someone who can influence the dip and flow of life? And then what? Rubbing my hand on my face, I find the errant hair and it snaps me back to my life before this. This is all wrong. I turn on the car, feel physical relief as it growls back into obedient life. Maybe I can put all the money straight back in. Maybe I will have enough time to clean up the house, get something good for breakfast tomorrow. Maybe I will be able to forget all of this. I turn my lights on and then I see her.
She is smaller than I remember. Her jeans are short and reveal torn canvas sneakers. A ragged denim jacket is hugged across her chest. In one hand, a cigarette; in the other, her phone held in a fist. Time has happened to her. Her face is rounder, fuller. The eyes are further back, their blue blaze dimmed. Despite that all, it is still, still thrillingly, her. I cannot move. Every muscle is drum-tight. She approaches the bar, her face sweeping across the road, searching. And then I am out of the car.
It has become cold. I should be wearing more than this shirt. I look down at my smart shoes and stifle a crazed laugh. My hands are in my jean pockets, gripping my wallet and keys. I am obviously failing to walk cool. What am I going to say? What am I doing?
As I approach, I feel the wind swish past me like years. She turns. I can see her eyes light. There is the slimmest second of confusion, a short shock of readjustment.
“It’s you,” she smiles.
I don’t say: “Look, I know this is really, really strange. But I got your message. About you needing help. And I remembered all our time in college together and I just thought that I had no choice, no choice but to help. It was like the person I used to be was calling me, calling me back. So here I am. Here for you.”
I say: “Sorry, excuse me.” And then walk on, walk passed Baby and his briefcase, not looking back until I reach my still-warm car.