Prose

How to Stand Still

5 March 2019

(Content warning: suicide)

And she is still there in the morning, freshly showered, standing in the doorway with hot wet skin: a hard-boiled lover.

Alice watches her from bed. She’s still tangled up in linen, soft and bitter with sleep. Mikah closes the door and sits down beside her.

Did you dream about it? Mikah asks.

Alice kneads at her eye with a knuckle, smudges the residue of her dreamscape. A train, my boss, a drowning sensation. She responds, No. I haven’t even thought about it.

It’s true. When Mikah told Alice that Pete was dead, Alice didn’t feel the need to ask questions. It was like this: yesterday, I could call Pete and expect him to pick up. Today, I can’t.

Mikah winds her fingers through Alice’s hair and says, I don’t know how you do that.

What?

You pretend that there’s nothing going on, she says. I don’t know how you do it.

Alice rolls over and mumbles, I’m not trying to pretend that he’s still alive or anything. I just think we’re allowed to talk about other things.

Then she half-wriggles out of bed and tugs at the curtain. The sun quivers in the sheets and burrows into her pupils, making doubles and triples of everything she can see. Three bookshelves, two neat bundles of blouses, twin Mikahs gazing through the window, staring at a hundred different versions of the same orange day.

I love you, says Alice.

Mikah smiles absently. You too, she replies.

Mikah kneels into the bed and kisses her, tough-lipped and absentminded. Mikah smells like soap and shampoo and shower-water, like somebody who has just spent thirty minutes scrubbing herself clean. Alice moves the sheet around her left leg and tugs her closer.

She feels her way down Mikah’s crooked spine. Mikah touches Alice’s hip bone and tastes the caustic sting of her mouth. Then she wriggles back and makes a rule. No, she says. We shouldn’t do this. Not now.

That’s what you do when your friend commits suicide, Alice thinks. You make rules. This morning, they aren’t allowed to enjoy things.

You should go see how Oliver’s doing, Mikah suggests.

Alice tries to make up a reason not to go, but words harden like calluses on the underside of her tongue. So she nods silently, gets up and gets dressed and heads out the door.

She walks down the street, past the sun-bleached ice cream shop, past a motorcycle seething quietly at a red light. The clouds are inflamed by sunrise, but the street-lamps are still on, pressing their sharp light into the damp stench of the pavement, making ghosts of the pedestrians that pass beneath them.

Her brother’s sitting on his front porch with a dead rat in his hands.

She looks at him and his red nose and his mad eyes. He looks at her and her white knuckles. He thinks: ghost.

Then he jogs the rat in his hands like he’s looking for the right way to hold it. He says, I found it in the backyard.

You’re fucking kidding me, says Alice.

It was on Pete’s chair, too.

Alice looks up at the sky, where a storm-bruised cumulus is tightening around the curve of the horizon. A hot air weighs itself against her body, and she feels an eversoslight tug of deja-vu, as though they’ve been there before. But Alice and Oliver have never been here before.

Do you want me to get rid of it for you? Alice asks.

No, I need to do this myself.

And so Alice stands by the patch to watch him dig the hole. The rat makes a thud as it hits the dirt. Oliver pats the ground with the back of his shovel, then pours the last drops of a watering can over the dirt as a kindofjoke, but neither of them laugh. Instead, they instinctively clasp their hands over their groins, in mourners’ poses. Out of ironic respect, Oliver closes his eyes.

At midday, they’ve run out of things to talk about, so Alice calls Mikah and tells her meet them at the fish and chip place.

The shop is white and sparse and needs another window. On the display counter, mayflies kill themselves against a neon sign. A thin skin of dust is superimposed on the walls, leaving a white rectangle by the fish tank where a painting should be.

The door goes bzzt when Mikah walks through it. Alice goes to kiss her but decides not to. Mikah sits down across from her and goes to ask how Oliver’s doing but decides not to. She points to the tank behind him instead.

Isn’t it macabre, she says.

I reckon it’s appropriate, says Oliver. We should be aware of what we’re eating.

We know they’re going to die, she replies. And we’re just watching them swim around in circles.

I know you’re gonna die one day. Does that make me macabre?

Mikah realises she should do something with her face. She grins. The twins start talking about going vego or vegan or something, they’re giggling and nudging feet under the table. Mikah watches them, feeling like an outlander to a mesh of tangled genes and emotions. She imagines that Oliver and Alice, after seventeen years of practice, know exactly how to unpick one another’s grief. She imagines that they’re keeping things lighthearted for her sake.

The manager of the store comes around to take their order. He’s a shiny-headed polo-shirt wearer who’d taken Pete and Oliver to be best friends.

After they broke up, he’d ask, Where’s yer mate?

He’s off travelling, Oliver would reply.

The routine is the same today, but Oliver doesn’t look up to make eye contact. Mikah’d always had the feeling that the owner secretly knew that Oliver and Pete were in love and now they aren’t. She had the feeling that Oliver knew that he knew, too, and that the routine was all just an elaborate pantomime that they acted out to keep everybody else comfortable. But Mikah had a lot of feelings about a lot of different things.

After the owner comes back with a hot stack of chip packages, they take them down to the beach. They take off their shirts and shoes and stretch out like drum-skins on the hot sand.

Mikah rolls over with a chip in her mouth and looks at Oliver. Did you dream about it? she asks. Oliver feels a pang of guilt. Nah, he says. I don’t think I dreamt about anything.

They go quiet. Oliver worries that his guilt is somehow palpable. So he says: I have been thinking about him a bit.

Alice lifts up the chip packet and peers into it. She asks, Do you regret any of it? The break-up?

Oliver swallows a bit of calamari. Pang pang pang.

I regret all of it, he says.

He rolls around on his stomach and stares out at the beach. The sand stings with memory. He can see Pete running it through his fingers, shaking it out of his hair, washing his feet of it. He presses his fingers into the damp grain and thinks about dead biomatter being ground up by the wind and scattered across beaches. He thinks about Pete’s dad standing in Royal Park and throwing his ashes at the native grasses. He thinks about Pete turning the gas switch and falling on the ground and dryhumping the kitchen tiles. And then he thinks about Pete the last time he saw him, alive and throbbing with resentment, when they hated one another so wholly that it was all kind of boring. Heat rises in his throat.

It’s fucked to think about Pete now, he says. Anything we imagine him doing is like a fantasy. Because it can’t happen.

It’s like he’s magic, Mikah says.

Mikah thinks about Pete on the beach, Pete in the front garden, Pete on the train. All of it magical, more magical, now that he isn’t here. She feels the heat of her thought press into the backs of her eyes. She announces, I’m gonna go climb up the rock, then grabs a fistful of chips and scuttles off.

Alice watches her running and growing distant. Look at her go, she says to Oliver.

She’s imagining that Mikah isn’t far away at all — she’s just very, very small, like a little sea creature exploring a rock pool, too tiny to contest the surface tension of the sky above her.

Are you gonna go after her? Oliver asks. Then he rolls onto his back and props his cap over his eyes.

She lies on his chest. Here, she can hear the thump of his ribcage, pounding faster and faster. She pictures the chambers of his heart gasping and clenching, gasping and clenching. Then she hears his breathing go rough. He begins to cry.

It doesn’t feel like a mourning cry. The sound has sharp corners. Oliver had loved Pete and then had hated Pete and now he hated him still. She keeps her head on his chest, as though to pin him down, as though the weight of her mind can hold the parts of him together.

He shimmies himself out from under her and says: Fuck it. Let’s go after Mikah. We should go after Mikah.

He clambers up and smudges his eyes and runs to the rock. Alice follows him. When she gets to the first little rock pool, she looks at the deep stream frothing between the sand and the cliff. She hesitates.

Hop up onto this one, Mikah yells from above, gesturing to a slick wall of stone.

She lets Mikah’s voice honey her limbs, then leans over the gap and grabs the stone. She wriggles up, eeeurgh, and sits down next to Mikah on a tough chunk of dry seaweed.

Mikah leans her head on Alice’s shoulder. Her skin is marbled by sand and water and prickles on her cheek. She says, Do you remember the last time we were all here together?

When you told Pete to put on sunscreen and he called you a fucking bitch?

Oliver laughs. He closes his eyes and tips his head back into a technicolour memory. He remembers standing upright on this rock with Pete’s hands massaging tanning oil into his neck. He imagines Pete’s fingers pressing into the soft soap of his head, digging into the meat of his mind, stretching out of his mouth in long and greedy sentences. He asks, Do you remember the first time we all got high up here?

And so they sit and talk about the summer of 2015, when everybody was turning sixteen and hedonism was in, and so was drinking spirits and smoking herbs and snorting lines, the last of which Mikah had no firsthand knowledge, but pretended otherwise. They talk about Pete and all his favourite powders: bleach and blush and ket and crack and cumin. After a few hours, they stop talking. They watch sun slip into the ocean, draining the blue from the sky. Colour sediments and turns dark on the horizon.

It’s getting late, says Mikah.

I should head, says Oliver.

Alice watches them scuttle down the rocks, bravely grappling the dark oily surface and leaping over the stream. From under the rock, she hears Oliver yell: Alice, come on. It’s gonna get dark soon.

Alice slips tentatively across the surface. She watches the water frothing between her and the sand. She looks up at Mikah. She says, I’m nervous.

Mikah says, Maybe you can take off your shoes and walk through it.

I don’t want to get my feet all wet and sandy, says Alice.

Just jump, says Oliver.

Don’t think about it, says Mikah.

But Alice is thinking. Her thoughts are calcified and literal. They’re seeping out from her brain and stiffening on her skin.

Grab my hand, says Mikah. Just jump! says Oliver. Jump!


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