ALL THE TIME
Back on Logan Road the night has broken into blue. Jenny still moves although the music has gone. You wonder how the night has come to this point. How all this has ended up in one street, in one city, in one country. How this particular moment is what you might have missed. How you might get to see your unique view of hopelessness at least one more time.
That same slice of humanity you glimpse from your window ledge. Sitting up late, early, the air coming through a crack between the clouds, fingers cradling another cigarette. From your window, things always look so impossible. Despite an insomniac’s eye for poetry, the stark lines of colonial houses give you nothing but despair. The hum of the street-sweeper, urban comfort to some, is nothing to you but a hollow echo of false progress.
This was all you were missing. This was how you came to the edge of the bridge. Not through epiphany. Not through a bolt of lightning-shock pain. You were driven to the edge of an ultimate end by a boring, banal, accumulation of nothing in particular. The adding up of small depressing details that other people negated with the comfort of another human body, with pets or work or other scraps of empty entertainment. But it’s not like you’re an ignored prophet, it’s not that you’re that much more special than anyone else. It’s just that you’d lost that part of yourself that could engage with the rest of the world.
You wonder what made Jenny step to the edge on the same night as you. She seems to have everything you don’t. Confidence, friends, knowledge, awareness. As she dances in front of you, under the light of an old shopfront, it makes you unbearably sad to think that she would want to deprive herself of all the world seems to offer her.
Weren’t suicides supposed to be spikes or shallow pits? Violent, sudden reactions? Where were the studies that said, Yes, you will want to kill yourself when you see a stack of your unwashed dishes. Where were the pamphlets in doctor’s waiting rooms that told you, It won’t take much. Where were the experts that assured you that deciding to kill yourself was an everyday activity?
And what would it take to dissuade you of your decision? Likewise, nothing extraordinary. A stranger you meet on a bridge. Muffled hopeful music. A pair of eyes trained just to yours.
“What?” she says.
“You were just staring into that window.”
You realise your thoughts are trapped in your reflection, a dark mass in a shopfront. Your fists, your jaw, have clenched tight. You’re standing with your feet set wide apart, tensed as if for a jump.
“Everything okay?” Jenny’s shape appears next to you in the glass. She’s tall, kindly, forlorn. You ache to put your arm around her, to make those reflected figures into something real.
“Fine,” you say. “Just thinking.”
“I could tell that. Penny for them?”
It’s as if then you can feel your mind snap shut. How to put into words these rocket-fast associations, these lateral avalanches? You hear your father’s voice instead, gravel clear. Tells me I don’t let her know what I’m thinking. How’m hell I supposed to do that? This, on a rare trip home, on a rare warm evening. The two Jones men sitting in the yard, swirling their silence in thick-bottomed mugs. Piles of dirt and woodchips sitting on the grass. That crack in the fence your dad is convinced is a letter of the Korean alphabet. And then just two sentences, splitting open the air like a politician’s stump-speech. Don’t let anybody ruin you, Lee. You’ll be done before you know it.
“That was some party,” you say automatically. “Mad stuff.”
Jenny nods her head. She’s still staring at her reflected self. “People tell me there’s nothing to do around here. There’s always something to do.”
Why did you want to jump? The words burn your head, hammer the back of your mouth.
She smiles, says, “So, to where should our adventure continue? It’s your turn, surely. What else is going on in the old town tonight?”
You shrug your shoulders. Tonight’s social calendar was not ever at the forefront of your mind, for obvious reasons. It’s almost funny to think that the endless plans for gigs, parties, social engagements could come to an end if you wanted them to. All the Facebook invites that would continue to pile up. A few people checking their watches maybe. A place-setting ignored. It all could still stop, you suppose. What was going to change in 24 hours?
You wonder if Jenny was thinking these same thoughts as she stared down at the River. Did she think of all the parties she’d miss? Did she think of all these people, these bright faces in corners, these bodies propping up bars? Did she think they’d miss her? Did she even really want to kill herself?
Logan Road is abandoned, in the largest possible sense. The street lights pick up gently swaying phone lines, the wet look of hardwood boards on windows. The closed-up drycleaners and restaurants carry a certain immigrant sadness. You take Jenny’s arm, silently, and make her walk with you out to the middle of the street.
“Imagine if it was just us,” you say. “Just us left in the world.” You peer up at the near-violet sky. “Would you still want to end your life?”
Jenny squeezes your arm. “I don’t know,” she says quietly. “No one would notice.” From the side, her eyes have a wet sheen, a protection.
“Would you do it, though?”
She sighs. “I suppose not.”
A car makes its way slowly past you, driving away from the city. Its engine in pain.
“Would you?” she says.
“Would I kill myself?”
“Don’t know if I’d feel the same if we were the only ones left.” You watch your shadow, split in two by the streetlights. You think about a low sun on a long street. Secret childhood shadow fights. “I guess I wouldn’t.”
“Good,” Jenny says. “I’d have no one to talk to otherwise.”
You smile. “Conversation would get boring after a while. Which abandoned supermarket should we dine in tonight? Which empty hotel shall we sleep in? When shall we start repopulating the earth?“
She laughs. “Can you imagine a world of our fucked up children?”
“Fair point.” You stare at the girl holding onto your arm, feeling her skin buzz against yours, wondering if she is a good enough reason to stay alive.
You remember this same feeling, with Melissa. Buzzed out at a Christmas party for a long-since folded street press. The girl with the cheekbones. She was that girl with the cheekbones. A killer stare in cigar-ash eyes. Through the haze of minor drugs and over a maddening wall of live music and beside a kiddy-pool of bobbing lukewarm sponsor beer you first leaned into her, and you shouted your first words, and you touched her shoulder with only the barest of your fingertips, and she smiled and placed her hands on the small of your back, and there, in that moment, it was like a question had been answered that you hadn’t known you’d asked.
But it was a molten moment that hardened too quickly, set your life to a form you hadn’t planned. Your idea of romance, a composite of thin-hipped folk singer wisdom and worn-out indie movies, jarred with Melissa’s ambition. You had your art, but little else, and even that, you knew, was a pipe dream. She’d accuse you of having no identity, no drive to succeed, as if life was nothing but picking a subculture and sticking with it. You wound up, together, in a one-bedroom in New Farm, on a street pregnant with fruit trees and a strong stench of bohemia. Stuck in a building with artists and writers, Melissa cut her hair short and went for long walks. Got a job in a bank and started spreadsheeting her life. Dropped you a week before you were to travel overseas together.
And that feeling – that long-obscured peek into happiness – was gone from your memory as quickly and as unexpectedly as it came. You were left alone in a house with all the spaces her absence left. Your heart buzzing, thick and heavy, like a slept-on fist.
“We had a game,” says Jenny. “Me and my brother. He’s younger than me, but he’s taller. Like, basketball tall.”
“We’d sneak out at night, winter nights if we could. Really dark. We had this big fence all around our house, like it was an embassy or something, so we’d go out the back door so mum and dad couldn’t hear us and we’d climb up the side of dad’s shed and get over the gate. We were, like, thirteen. Well, I was thirteen and Shaun was eleven.”
You stare in wonder at Jenny’s animated face. A natural storyteller. You realise you haven’t asked what she does, if she studies, if she has a job.
“It was classic suburbia,” she says, “so all these streets around our house would be deserted. And these streetlights they had – they were solar-powered, I think – they’d only turn on if they detected any movement. Our game was to walk as far as we could from our house without any of the lights turning on.” Jenny’s hands spun: one meant her and one meant her brother.
“What was your record?” You ask.
“We got pretty good. We went further each time. We’d hold hands and walk as slowly as we could, like a pair of slow motion replays. It was really tense. Sometimes I’d scream when the lights came on. We had to see how fast we could do it before we’d hit the end of our suburb. We’d sit and watch all the trucks speeding past on the highway. It was pretty funny to think of all those truck drivers with no idea that two kids in pyjamas were watching them.”
“How did you get back into your house?”
“We didn’t,” she says, and starts slow-walking, moving with exaggerated astronaut steps, holding tight your hand, dragging you back to her. “Come on! Think you’ve got what it takes?”
You laugh at her slow body movements, enjoying the way her hair sweeps over her face. You copy her, pretending that the bitumen is quicksand. She pokes an eye at you from beneath her swaying fringe and shouts, “That’s the spirit, Lee!”
You sense the yellow-wash of headlights behind you and a four-wheel drive goes past, staccato-honking its horn. You turn your head – still in slo-mo – after the car passes, expressing mock surprise when you see nothing to account for the noise.
“Aliens,” says Jenny. “There are some very strange occurrences in this suburb.”
You laugh again, and something like happiness thumps you in the solar plexus. You release Jenny’s hand, letting her escape to the next wash of streetlight. How had she done it? How had she turned your thoughts, in an instant, from the dark repetition of depression into something fun? You can’t think of any other of your friends who are like this. You can’t think of any of your friends you’d want to spend anytime with, at least not without the lubricating spin of alcohol.
“Are you always like this?” you shout.
Jenny spins around. “Like what?”
“Like this,” you sway your hands around you. “Full of … life. Fun … you know.”
Jenny stops spinning, her body calming, falling still.
“Is there a course I can take?” you say, laughing, but she’s frozen still.
She walks away and sits down on the curb. The long front-edges of her dress spill onto the ground like thrown paint. She puts her head in her hands.
You walk over to her. “You alright? I didn’t mean to …”
She shivers her head into a shake. “Too much,” she says quietly. “Got carried away.”
You sit down next to her. “What? No. It was great. I just feel bad you have to keep lifting my spirits.” This doesn’t come out quite right.
She shakes her head again and tries to get up. Her boots get caught on her dress and she gets stuck in a half-crouch. She stays there, as if pretending this was what she wanted to do.
“I’m sorry,” you say. “I just … you’ve been great. For me. For my … state of mind I guess.”
You realise then that she’s crying. And the whole afternoon and evening you’ve already spent with her – skimming on a surface tension of mannered cynicism, spiky wit and urban confidence – suddenly bursts.
She collapses back down to the curb with a bump and you notice the skin on her arms has turned red, more red than skin should be. She turns to face you – eyes into oysters – and then back to the ground.
“So it’s three months,” she says, “after I first go to the doctor and I’m waiting in this scanner. One of these big, fuck-off death tubes, and I’m in the paper gown and everything, and the attendant’s just sitting there, waiting for it to warm up, for the magnet to build up speed or something. There’s these warning messages written on the ceiling of the tube, telling me in detail all the things that can possibly kill me in the next ten minutes. Earrings ripping off, metal plates tearing from my head. Labial piercings, for crying out loud. I’m reliably informed this machine will find them all.” Jenny’s tears fall flatly into the gutter. “And I’m thinking about how I’m supposed to hold my breath for twenty seconds when a light goes green and I wonder if I can do it. Wondering if I’ve ever held my breath for twenty seconds. One second for every year of my life.”
You think, shit. You think, what have I said? You want to put a hand on her shoulder, but decide this isn’t quite the right thing to do. You hear your dad’s voice again. His answer, always, if someone asked him how he was: I’m well enough.
“I’m sorry,” you say again. I didn’t mean anything.”
“Fuck,” says Jenny. “Stop apologising.” She runs her hands through her hair. “Just understand.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” You run your tongue over your lips, feeling the itchy beginnings of an argument.
“It means I’m not your fucking dream girl, Lee. I’m not anyone’s dream girl.”
You stand up. “I don’t know what … I was just trying to say thanks.” Too much venom creeps into your voice and you already regret it. But you don’t walk away, not just yet.
“Do you want to know how much medication I’m on?” she says. “I could list them all out for you. It’s like a fucking roll-call for a Star Wars film.”
You look across the road, at a gorgeous old building with a faded banner across its upper windows saying COMING SOON. You say, “Why tell me all this? You don’t have to…” You want to say, You don’t have to match my depression. But you can’t make yourself do it.
Jenny clamps her hands on her knees. “I don’t want you thinking I’m something I’m not.” She lets out a loud sigh, and in the clear night it echoes all down the road. “Don’t rely on me to help you. In fact, don’t rely on me at all.”
More cars stream past, their rolled-up windows revealing nothing, reflecting back stuttering images of your face. For all you know, inside every car is someone having the same thoughts as you, the same problems as Jenny, over and over.
You sit back down on the curb. “Don’t worry,” you say. “I don’t think you’re that great.”
Your gamble pays off: Jenny laughs. Not much, nothing but a gurgle. But something. After a moment she says, “You really mean that?”
You smile. “Of course I do. The minute I saw you, I thought Here’s no one special.”
She peers up at you. There’s a sardonic turn at the corners of her mouth that you realise you really missed. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Only the ones I have a deep, sudden, unexplained ambivalence towards.” You scoot up and put your arm around her then. She slides her head onto your shoulder.
“You’re pretty average yourself, Mr Jones.” Her fingers find their way to just above your heart, putting gentle pressure there.
“Can’t trust me for a minute,” you reply.
“I hope you know I won’t ever drive you to the airport.”
“I’ll never collect your mail.”
“I’ll always put myself first.”
“I won’t ever pay attention to you.”
“I’ll never buy fresh milk.”
“I’ll steal your cereal.”
“I’ll put cling-wrap on your toilet seat.”
“I’ll never jump off a bridge.”
And you sit there with her for a while longer, thinking of all the questions left to ask her. The doctor, the scans, counting to twenty. Life, love death. All the answers you’ll have to give yourself. But instead.
“You want to get a coffee?” you say.
Jenny’s voice is fragile but hopeful. “Coffee is good. Coffee is very, very good.”
“I know a place. Like a twenty minute walk. It never closes.”
“Nowhere should ever close,” she says. “That way no one’s disappointed.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” For once, you allow yourself to think ahead. A coffee, a grimy table, something with melted cheese served in a paper bag. A conversation that never has to end. Postponing everything forever. A sunrise through a streaky window. All the time left in the world.
To celebrate the launch of our new website, Stilts hosted, ‘Brisbane Authors write letters and other things’: a chain letter for novels, memoir, poetry published in 2011.
Christopher Currie is the author of the recently shortlisted debut novel, The Ottoman Motel.