LOVER LIKE A TREE
Rain runs the gutters, gathering leaves and plastic bottles, dumping them at the mouth of the pipe under the driveway. His tyres jolt over the pipe’s edge and the crack tells him that the weight of the car, its angle and speed, has broken off more concrete, made more rubbish to block the flow and send storm water billowing onto the road like liquid marrow from a cracked bone. His own bones ache for a storm runs through them too.
He turns off the engine, sits in the car with the radio singing, hears her voice in his head:
The battery will run down, don’t you know?
I know, he says. I know.
He takes the syringe out of his bag, flicks the tip, ejects a bubble of air, takes the butterfly needle from its packet and screws the two together. With a careful slow push the morphine reaches the needle’s tip and a round clear pearl bulges from its core. He winds the tourniquet around his arm, pulls it tight, wipes the side of his wrist with an alcohol swab and its fragrance hits him quickly as his veins draw like a map up his arm, wide highways painted blue, picked out against the flat plain skin.
At the hospital they say he can find veins in his sleep. Deep veins buried under fat, thin-walled veins ruined by heroin and chalk, all these are easy for him. On buses and trains the first thing he notices about people is their veinsrivers with tributaries blue under the skin, red when his needles puncture.
She has beautiful veins. When he licks the line of them drawn up her neck, her sigh is the sound of wind through a eucalypt canopy trunks and branches, his lover’s veins more tree than river, more intricate than these roads running along his arm. He slides the needle in expecting asphalt, expecting dust from tires and maybe gravel, but bloodred as the sunset burning over the rooftrails into the syringe. He pops the catch on the tourniquet, pushes the plunger, lets the drug run his veins, pump through his heart, speed arterial routes. He is the tiny man in a snow dome, picked up, shaken. Cool flakes swirl everywhere in gentle confusion and when they settle a wondrous light follows on, filling up his bones this time with the best of marrow.
The afternoon is late, the sky full of rain yet to fall. She leaves work early, drives straight and hard up the motorway, swearing softly as her car crunches over the stormwater pipe. He is asleep in his car with the door open and the radio playing out to the new night. She opens her door quietly, walks lightly on the gravel to come and stand by his door; to see how young he looks in sleep, how pink, how beautiful; to whisper “I love you” and then wake him up.
He is not beautiful. He is not even pink. The syringe in his hand is empty and its sharp, nasty needle has a bead of blood at its tip. His lips are blue. She lowers the seat back, extends his head, watches his face flush with colour and hears his breath deepen. Now her legs tremble. Now loud angry cries roll from her mouthugly wet noises sending saliva dripping onto the car.
The sun falls further through its clouds flooding them with late warmth and a strange tangerine glow. Bullet rain starts falling hard. She shakes him awake, enough to stand up, take his weight, stumble into the house and to the small pink bedroom by the front door. She pushes him onto the bed, rolls him on his side and bends his knee up then brings the syringe and tourniquet from the car and puts them on the pillow by his head.
In and out he breathes, ribs expanding then collapsing like a flower unfolding and closing up, one long breath in for the coming sun, one long breath out for the night. He is a stranger, a character caught in his own private storm, his own lightening, his own rain raining down while all around is the warm summer blue, and the ordinariness of a sunset.
Not all stranger though. There are some things she recognises: this ankle at the edge of his jeans, this knuckle of bone and sinew, an arched foot, the pearled nails of his toes. And this long leg with its heavy thigh and fat bellied muscle, this rosary line of vertebra and corrugated ribs and the sparse dark hair circling his nipples, spreading over his sternum, marking the place where his heart beats invisibly. Familiar too this flow of soft skin down from neck to belly to the top of his jeans and underneath to the hair that is lush and thick and so much darker than eyebrows and lashes. She lies next to him, remembers the warmth of his breath on her mouth and the heat of his skin on hers when all that will fit between them is one layer of sweat. Her fingers roll over the sphere of his shoulder, trace the line of clavicle. Bones and knuckles and thumping heart. Add a punctured vein. Add morphine to his stormwater blood. He is not the stranger. He is her lover.
His pulse speeds up to her touch. He opens his eyes, seesa syringe; a tourniquet. Sees no chance to lie. But the caress of her hand has the brush of leaves and twigs and her arm over him is a pale bark branch and her hair a canopy of blossoms and birds are sleeping there and butterflies rest in her cool green shade while her roots sink down through the bed and the floor and the earth to its rocks and he feels the rain sliding over him, dripping from her leaves, his lover like a tree.
Trees line the road in even measure. Perfect lawns stretch away behind. There should be jazz on the breeze and elegant people dancing by the fountain. Or at least nurses in white dresses and red capes with fob watches bouncing over their breasts as they hurry up the steps. In reality she cant tell the difference between staff and patients in this quiet pretty clinic until she is close enough to read the name badges pinned to tee shirts. Or to see the tremor of a hand. What will she say if he agrees to see her this time? That she loves him still? That love is not enough. That she is too ordinary to do this. She pushes the buzzer, waits for the voice to ask who she is then let her in. The curtains are closed. Reflected in the window she sees a man (right shape, right height) walking quickly across the lawn, past the fountain. He wobbles unevenly from windowpane to windowpane, then disappears. They let her in. She sits and waits till a phone rings and the receptionist has a quick conversation, then calls her over and explains: he left a message. He will not see her today.
But the day is bright and clear so she dares to follow the reflected man, who is probably him but might not be, dares to step out into the lawn, walk past the fountain where jazz should be played, toward the first line of trees. Her heels sink backwards in the wetter patches of grass, making her awkward. Taking grace from her bravery.
His sits against the bole of a huge tree mostly hidden in the triangle space made by the roots. She sees bare feet, nails, knuckles, an arch, long bones, and her hands are so helpless beside her, so desperate for something hold that they reach out to him as he stands up and press against his chest and into his ribs as if they could slide between each bone, tear at the membrane and hold his heart. Now her back flattens against the tree, the crush of his body printing bark onto skin, gluing her to it with his sweat, while his breath is winter in her mouth and his dust and gravel stormwater is sticky down her thighs. A magpie warbles, taking off from the branches above them laughing at their pale featherless skin in the cold air, laughing at them pulling up pants and fixing zips.
He sits again in the triangle roots, crosses his legs, takes off his shoes. Small pieces of bark and dry leaves shake loose from her hair as she runs her hands through its curls, walking away and not looking back. The needle slides into the short vein on the side of his toe, more laneway than road. He closes his eyes, injects, sees the flat planes of lawn ruche as her feet slow and spread; sees great cords of timber winding out from her soles, grabbing at the soil, sinking through its layers. The sun filters yellow shine and the sky glows blue through her spread out arms and canopy hair and now all of her is veined with brown sap and wet rain slips gloriously over her leaves, dripping off her tips, so cool, so calm, as marvellous as the morphine travelling round his veins.
He has all he wants: morphine and a lover like a tree.
J. Anne deStaic
STATE LIBRARY OF NSW
26th March 2016