The winner of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Room Short Story Competition.
He laughs, and says, Do you want me to carry you over the threshold? And she giggles back in a breathier echo, tells him she lost enough to fit into her wedding dress but probably not enough for this. He does it anyway, and I hear something shatter through the wall — a vase caught up as collateral damage, perhaps, or a dropped champagne glass. Her heels click staccato as she stumbles down the hallway near where the plaster is thinnest, and his footsteps are heavier but more measured, deliberate as he takes in the hardwood floors and high ceilings that the realtor told him were to die for. Duplexes are more and more common these days, Bruce Nile of Nile Properties had assured them, all slick words, greased to roll right off his tongue. A way to get a piece of the Australian Dream, even in this economy. They’d chuckled and whispered between themselves, a menagerie of chirping worries and lyrical excitement, before they’d said, We’ll take it, all in a big rush, as if terrified in another moment the coin would flip, and they’d talk themselves out of it again.
But they didn’t, and here they are, all burnished-bright and young. And loud. Maybe I should put felt on the walls, and hope it soaks in some of the sound like water. Or wait it out, let them soften with time, let them, like Lot’s wife, look wistfully back at their old separate lives.
They go away to visit family over Christmas, and I hoard the days of December as the first quiet month in half a year. Their part of the house creaks, calling to mine, checking in, asking, How are you doing this holiday season? And the door hinges groan out a reply in time with the grunt of the staircase as the foundations roll their shoulders. On Christmas Eve, there are two domestic disturbance reports made from our street — 000, What’s Your Emergency? — but it’s always like that this time of year.
I know the exact moment they return — the grind of the taxi and the snick of old suitcase wheels up new stairs, heavy with travel-sized toothpaste and folded t-shirts and negative space. They’re barely into the hallway before he’s saying, I know you don’t like my mother, but could you make it a little less obvious? She hisses back, Maybe you shouldn’t have married someone with an arts degree if she didn’t approve. And then he’s calling after her, a jumbling of Baby, you know I love your paintings, and a mumbled salad-toss of curses as he tries to lift both suitcases alone.
Later, I hear her on the second story, unpacking with a roiling vigour that echoes down the floors below. He is still in the living room, and I imagine the soft clink of ice and the swilling of whiskey, too quiet even for these walls to let in.
He takes up guitar, and is terrible at it, but in another life, she wanted to fall in love with a rock star, and so he tries. He practices when she isn’t home, a pattern that hums of egg-shell vulnerability and a softness I had not pictured for a man with such a sturdy step and concrete voice. His fingers are clumsy and tangle up in themselves, and I think of callouses swelling ripe and fresh on the baby flesh of an accountant’s fingers.
On their anniversary, he plays her Stairway to Heaven, and to me, it is the round humming notes of a cliché, but she cries, and I wonder if there is some meaning hidden in there that I cannot hear along with them.
There is a fight, then a lull, the gap between aftershocks on a Richter scale reading. He is getting dressed downstairs in the living room, and the air is perfumed with weighted sighs, leeching from both of them and into the walls.
He says, This trip is about coaching me for the promotion. There is silence, and I wonder briefly if he is on the phone. But then he adds, I am sorry I’ll miss your showcase.
She is quieter over the next few days. The noise of just one person, but maybe even less than that. Her friends come over to celebrate after her exhibition opening, and the champagne corks sound like glittery white-picket gunshots. She drinks enough that they laugh loudly, groan loudly the next morning.
When he returns from his weekend, he enters the house on tentative footsteps, cautious. Her Hi is soft like an olive branch, but a wilted one. He has brought her back a present — something that makes her gasp and squeak Tiffany’s — and he tells her, This job is for both of us, so we can have the life we deserve.
I picture her smile but also wonder if she would’ve rather had him there and looked longingly in the jewellery store window than the other way around.
Time trips over itself, and suddenly it is October, and then October again. The infant summer is thick like soup, amber and marmalade smeared messily through the sunset. His sister comes to stay, and talks about her girlfriend at a mile a minute, words fighting each other to be heard first. He listens and laughs in all the right places at her wild and tiny stories, about the girl with the red hair and the lights in the city and how they should come visit sometime. He agrees and lists all the things they could maybe do in Melbourne, and wonders when it was, the last time he talked about his wife like that.
They each take a month off after New Year’s, and go travelling. It is a spontaneous affair, a let’s-head-to-the-airport-and-pick-a-flight Hollywood experience, and it sparkles more with the sweaty glean of desperation than the reckless joy of irresponsibility.
When they return, it is earlier than they planned, accompanied by the graceless thud of rubber-soled crutches. He chuckles and groans, I don’t think I was meant to be a snowboarder. She says, I wish we’d gone somewhere with sun.
He works from home while his knee heals. A cacophony of scattered sound effects bounce off the wall and over his head as he plays game after game, lingering longer on the couch, his footsteps fewer by the day.
She comes home, and the afternoons start with How are you doing? and end with, Would it kill you to do something while you’re here all day?
They talk more and say less louder, until it’s just static, sandpaper grinding against my eardrums. I turn on the documentary channel, hoping the facts will drown out the sound of dishes breaking, of furniture kicked.
I watch a buffalo baby get pulled into the water, watch the crocodile sink its teeth in with that sort of raw, bright relish they’ve bred out of sophisticated people in sophisticated societies.
The houses spread rumours to each other in the night, the creaking shifts of movement saying, He sleeps on the couch. The lilt of the wooden floorboards on the second story saying, She isn’t happy, you can hear it in her footfalls.
He moves furniture around, reshaping the space, changing how it echoes. She works later and he builds his kingdom, and I wonder if he misses living alone.
He calls up an old friend, and tells him, I’ve got a guitar with your name on it, buddy. And on Tuesday, the choke and grumble of an engine announces a pickup in the driveway. They have beers and laugh about university, sifting through memories with lazy hands. When his friend leaves, the guitar goes with him, and so do the shards of Stairway to Heaven slowly cooling inside of it.
She goes to Melbourne without him, tells him there’s an art gallery down there interested in her portraits. I wonder who she has painted, if she has painted him. I imagine her drawing him excitedly when they first started dating; him posing, laughing but fascinated, her lost in hard lines and the dust of charcoal. I think he would look different on paper if she tried again now.
I listen to the phone calls answered, and then the ones unanswered.
The night before she’s supposed to fly in, he has a party. Old friends, new friends, acquaintances flood the house, filling it to bursting, and it swells to accommodate all the possibilities.
His high school best friend gets drunk, drunk enough to talk about him kissing her at sixteen so loud the plaster and the thud of the music cannot hold the words back.
Everyone clears out by two a.m. — except for her. She stays, her unsteady footfalls ricocheting off the stairs as he takes her up to the bedroom, and I listen, even though I shouldn’t, because there is something novel about the sound of things that cannot be undone.
But it stays quiet. She giggles, and he sighs, and returns to the couch, leaving her to sleep. I think he is thinking of roads, diverging in a yellow wood, and who he might have been if he had chosen her. And so he looks back, and turns into a pillar of salt.
She’s home by midday, and rushes upstairs to unpack, but she’s back downstairs just as quickly. The house tenses around her.
She says, Who did you have over here? She says, Whose perfume is that? I wait for him to tell her, It was just a friend. But he seems to want her to know that, all on her own. I want to beg him, ask him why he’s letting her believe that, but the longer the silence goes on, the more I think that maybe she’s the one letting herself believe it.
Part of me is burning, boiling, lungs cinched with effort it takes not to burst out the door to go knock on theirs, and explain how all the pieces broke and how they’ve put them back together wrong.
But then I think of nature documentaries, and I listen, and do nothing.