Rorschach

Andrew stoops down and picks up a forlorn pile of envelopes. They have been forgotten by the world and he empathises. The paper is coarse, crackling from a day on the doorstep in the blazing sun. He balances the pile on his palm while he journeys: up two flights of stairs, through an open door, down a dark, mildewed corridor and into a lime green, 1970’s kitchenette. He is a waiter delivering finest chardonnay.

Annie and her man-friend Kevin are sitting at a knife-scarred wooden table by the kitchen window. The room rustles and the two figures blur: the dust spotted windowpane is pushed back and Annie’s poetry, hung from strings attached like clotheslines between the naked rafters, mumbles a faint morning breeze.

Andrew navigates between the drifting pages. Grabs of words billow across his path: Into the eye of the— Frames for questions waiting— Too much for a morning. He’s struggling to get used to Annie being a poet.

No, that . . . no, that’s wrong—he got it wrong again, and after he said he’d try his best to remember. Maybe Jericho has always been a poet? He wouldn’t know, because he keeps thinking of her as Annie. Not intentionally. He’s honestly trying his best to remember that Annie renamed herself Jericho.

Some religious awakening, did she say? It must have passed. But she has the relics still.

A lot has changed with her since he last saw her and in his mind none of the changes fit. Take, for instance, her becoming a poet. That is a, a revolution. He knows Annie thinks poetry is vapid. One small step removed from song. This is all wrong. There’s an acoustic guitar on the dresser. Earthy and gypsy and incongruous next to faded Ming china. He probably shouldn’t have come.

Feeling his way forward, Andrew makes his way through the eye-level maze to the kitchen window, brushing between the strands of trembling paper. Mostly, it seems, Jericho’s being a poet means decorating the apartment with reams of other poet’s work; stringing them up like Buddhist prayer flags.

“The mail,” he announces to seated man and woman. He divides the pile between them, for this is their house and no one writes to him even at his own sagging suburban bungalow. Putting letters and postcards into waiting hands, he feels useful for a brief moment and existence feels ordinary. Then reality rechannels and the feelings collapse like paper in the fire.

Nothing about the last two days has been normal. All three of them are operating on autopilot. Andrew’s autopilot seems to be very old, Soviet-made, and built for nuclear war. It wants to keep standing; standing feels safe. Dominating the room. Andrew has to labour against instinct. He forces his body to sit down at the table. Good. Carefully, he opens the newspaper to any page except Obituaries.

He gambles a glance at Jericho. She takes a sip from a teacup she’s holding in front of her face. The rim sketches a fleeting moustache under her nose. Steam rises into her eyeballs. Her tears are returning via evaporation. She’s reading the fourteenth draft of her mum’s eulogy and her makeup is smudged—again—but Andrew catches himself before he says so. The autopilot swears sultrily in Russian.

Andrew wrests control of his mad tailspin and closes his mouth. Not enough oxygen. That’s why he’s looking when he shouldn’t and wants to stand securely on ceremony. He loosens the tie around his neck, hoping to ease his pressurised collar button.

A couple of years ago he read in a journal that accountants should wear bright coloured shirts otherwise they will appear boring. These days, editors just publish any old notion. Blissfully unaware of the lifelong damage ideas can do. This particular idea fit with Andrew’s fears: in slid its feelers. This strangulation shirt is the only white shirt he still owns. It survived the purge of non-colours, somehow, and lurked, Ned Kelly fugitive, in the back of his wardrobe, shrinking and scheming and planning this slow revenge.

Kevin puts his small hand next to Jericho’s. “Honey,” he coughs apologetically, “we should go now. The traffic—”

“It has to be perfect,” Jericho hisses. She begins to read the eulogy from the top again. Andrew nods solemnly, acknowledging her authority. Just in case she needs it verified. But who would? The logic is inarguable. Her mum died. Her corpse: her prerogative.

The poetry susurruses and Andrew folds his hands and maintains unadulterated silence. Telegraphing how patiently he is waiting. Annie would have been afraid to let the words go unfinished. This partial continuity unburdens his waiting. When he and Annie were at college, she always took days—sometimes weeks—with her drafts. Turning each word back and forth, inside and out, seeking to control them, their connotations and their connotation’s subtexts until one by one they buckled, became meaningless, and the zigzagging story unspooled into a sexy frazzled mess. Oh Annie.

He is smiling now. Has he gone mad? He wipes his face burial suave and inoffensive.

What they wrote and why is hazy in his memory; he only remembers that it was hard and pointless and they fed off each other’s desire. The parts that are still clear and repetition-polished show him and Annie sitting next to each other in the back of high-ceilinged lecture rooms, writing rather than reading, creating in place of learning. The parts clearest of all have blended into a single, perfect heartbeat of them smoking cigarettes on the roof of the dorm, two bodies awash with stars.

A small hand—no, fingers; not the full intimacy of a hand—touches Andrew’s shoulder.

“Andy?” Kevin appeals to him.

Jericho’s eyes come up from the page. Kevin wants to get this over with. A thick sheen of summer sweat cocoons his forehead. The sun is ratcheting towards a crimson crescendo.

Andrew takes a moment to get his bearings, and then he nods, accepting his role. He just wants a role to play. Any role. They haven’t implied where he stands with them, inside their house and alongside their lives. Sure, he can be Kevin’s leverage if that helps.

“We should go, Jeri. Your mum did hate being late to things.” He uses the nickname Kevin used yesterday. A calculated guess. Kevin enjoys nicknames, inflicts them arbitrarily and exuberantly. The truncations taste strange. Jericho’s forehead crawls menacingly together. Andrew wishes he was serenely at home with his cat Cuddles.

“Okay, okay. Let’s go. Let’s go bury my dear, dead mum.”

Andrew watches innocently as she wraps herself in an enormous gossamer shawl and ties her huge waft of hair back. She still moves the same way, but with new emphasis. Her chin points down more and she pulls her shoulders up slightly; she walks with a different relationship to the ground. He feels better when they’re leaving, because he already hates their apartment, which is overly bright and steamy and heavy with stale incense.

They wander into the street. The front door is swollen in the December heat and refuses to close no matter how hard Kevin kicks it.

* * *

After the funeral they return to the apartment, breathe in the torpid air, quickly leave the apartment and walk from the tenement block to the market. Jericho makes up a reason for the market on the way. She needs to buy some tealeaves to brew in her burnt black iron teapot.

Both men have been mute since the taxi back from the graveyard. The headstones had a neutering effect. When she’s not chewing her lip, Jericho’s mouth vanishes into a thin line.

At the market, Andrew helps her sift through bags and bushels at a tealeaf booth.

“I need Iron Goddess of Mercy,” she says. “It’s a type of Oolong leaf. It helps me focus on the present,” she mutters, flicking quickly through her phone to find a picture to show him. She pushes the screen into his face.

Andrew plays along noddingly. He suspects his role is pretend accomplice. He can do this one: the death alone is easy. Bereavement is not problematic. The right gestures come easy. But his task as emotional leaning post is complicated because he’s trying to shake the sensation there’s two people attached to the slim, freckled face—the old and the new—when he knows one is a figment and the other, the one glancing frantically at him now, which he should be focussing on, is a mystery.

There is no Mercy. The thin line disappears completely. Like she never had a mouth.

“Let’s find Kevin.”

Andrew agrees. He tries to imagine what Jericho is feeling. He can’t, not least because people are coming at him—rushing at him—from every direction, all trying to get past him to booths piled high with brick-a-brack and bits-and-bobs. The market is very hyphenated. The pilgrims come in violent waves: eyebrows, eyebrows, ears and noses. So many different types of hands and species of mouth and clothes, clothes, clothes. Clothes like a second hand shop exploded, like karma’s endgame for the fashion industry. The sea of individuality is giving Andrew a raging headache.

They find Kevin standing in front of a booth selling something beautiful. A hollow metal frame extends from the table, forming a rectangle above the booth owner’s head. Blown glass orbs hang from chains attached to the frame. Inside the orbs are tiny plants, growing from black soil compressed at the south pole of each globe. Kevin is running his index finger around the various curves of the glasses, lustful eyes on the green. Jericho stops beside him and his eyes go from the spheres to her and back to the plants inside.

“Nice, huh?”

She looks at the plant orbs for a few moments, then at the booth owner—a lady in a shawl with brown hair and brown eyes—then at Andrew and finally Kevin. She shakes her head. “It’s cruel, keeping them in there.”

“Hey?” Kevin looks at her the way a seagull inspects a curious, slightly threatening object.

“They should be in the ground. They can’t grow tall, in there. It’s cruel, keeping them small like this, when they should be in the ground.”

Kevin looks from the shop owner—whose eyes are emerging now, confusedly—to Jericho, whose fingernails are delving into the flesh of her palms.

“That’s rude,” he says.

“It’s not fucking rude. What’s fucking rude is locking these plants up like this. Stringing them up like fucking Christmas decorations.”

“I don’t—why are you yelling? Are you serious?”

“Yeah! I’m fucking serious! Look at this shit! Plants in a bottle! Look at it!”

Jericho lashes an arm, slaps one of the hanging orbs. The glass explodes. Andrew blinks.

Jagged shards and dirt scatter across tarmac. The little plant drops onto its side amidst the wreckage. When it lands it bends upwards for a pliable second and then straightens out, lays still. Andrew blinks. Tiny martyred plant: richer with emotion than the coffin.

“What the fuck?” says Kevin. “What the actual fuck? Why’d you do that?”

Jericho doesn’t say anything else. She is staring at the minute body on the tarmac.

“Fuck this. I’m off,” says Kevin. He pulls a twenty-dollar note out of his pocket and holds it out to the owner of the plants. The hand offering blood money is confident. The righter of global wrongs. Plant lady takes the note. Not deliberately, just—money, freely offered. The hand knows what to do with money freely offered. The lady’s eyebrows are lost somewhere in her curly, creased hair. “Sorry about this,” says Kevin. His chin is righteously cocked. “She’s crazy. I’m sorry.”

He swivels on his heel, smoothly, like they do in TV dramas. He pauses next to Jericho, doesn’t look at her—looks straight ahead, past Andrew. “We’re done,” he whispers, so Andrew can hear too. “Too much of your shit. I’ll get my stuff in a few days.” Then he keeps walking. The back of his head seeps into the gyrations of the crowd.

The plant lady is caught between her little folding chair and standing properly and her hand hangs where it met Kevin’s, the note still in her hand.

“I’m sorry, too,” Andrew says to her. He wants her to move again, because she looks like a wax dummy. The invisibles of this little drama have robbed her agency. “Your plants are very beautiful. Please don’t think they’re not.” He points down at the one lying amongst shattered glass. “Is it okay if I take this one? Take it with me? I’ll put it in a pot and water it.”

The plant lady closes her mouth and puts the hand with the note into her other hand, shielding in front of her chest, clearing a space for her heart. She nods. She doesn’t look at him or at Jericho but into the safe middle distance.

Andrew scoops the plant up—carefully, taking as much soil for the roots as he can—and reaches out to Jericho with his other hand. Her palm is sticky. He releases it and checks—blood is growing in her palm. He pulls out his handkerchief—thanks mum, never leave home without one—and winds it into a ball and makes her hold it tight to staunch the flow. He steers her gently through the market using an arm over her shoulder as a rudder.

* * *

Back at the apartment Andrew puts the plant in teacup and examines Jericho’s hand. The thick smells and the moving people at the market made him feel sleepy, but now he feels awake.

“Annie, are you okay?” he asks her. Habit makes him call her Annie; he used to say the same thing to her when she came back to the dorm from the university pub and knocked on his door. It was one of their routines. He opened the door and she came inside until she felt a little better.

She nods gently. So she is still Annie, and not just Jericho, then.

Andrew pushes back his chair, gets up, puts a shallow plate in the sink, turns the tap on and waits. When the plate is glistening and full of water he lifts it up carefully. He returns to the table with the full plate and a box of tissues that he wets one-by-one and dabs, one-by-one, onto Annie’s palm. She flinches a little each time he presses down.

“What happened back there?”

“I don’t know,” she murmurs.

“What made you do that? It was strange to do that. To break that pretty thing.” He thinks he knows what, or at least somewhat. But talking always helps.

“It reminded me,” she says after a pause. “My life is what it reminded me of. My life: that’s what I imagined it looked like.”

Andrew stops dabbing because all the red has been adsorbed. The tissues are lined up like pink soldiers from a sad war.

“How do you mean?”

“It made sense when I saw it. Sorry.” She riffles for something to expound. “Well, for instance, back in college. I said I hated poetry, right?”

Relief. Not going crazy. “I remember that, yes.”

“Well, I like it now.”

“Change is good.” Andrew has no idea what she means. The confusing poetry hangs around his head. The breeze died mid-morning from heat exhaustion. He puts the kettle on; despite everything, he is feeling strangely Zen.

Annie smiles at him and accepts his cup of plain old Tetley’s.

“Sorry about what happened back there. It’s just—sorry. We lost dad ages ago. With mum it’s harder for some reason.”

They take their teacups out to the balcony and sit in the two folding beach chairs waiting there. Andrew’s feet feel sandy. The two of them and the two tarnished chairs completely fill the tiny jutting balcony ledge. Above, below and on either side are rows of balconies just like theirs, each with a wrought iron handrail flaking rusty paint. Every window is shut. The clouds are still trapping a withering heat. Air conditioning units whir like industrial drills. Andrew’s forehead is damp, his shirtfront a clinging wetsuit. Annie lights two cigarettes and gives one to him.

“Do you think Kevin will come back?” he asks, blowing smoke down at the cracked, bird-spattered tiles. Waiting for a crab to scuttle across his toes.

Annie sighs and stares at a grey car driving along the road far below. “I’m not sure. We fight a lot.”

“Do you love him?”

He can’t imagine what kind of person could leave their partner the day of a funeral. Maybe a person who is in love; love obfuscates a great many things. Andrew knows he’s not good in love. He asked Annie one time what he should aim for. She gave him a ruffled copy of Wuthering Heights. “This is love”, she said. Thanks, Annie. My divorce lawyers say thank you.

Annie looks up at the sky, a meniscus full of thick, orange clouds. “I like him. I like Kevin.” She studies the Rorschach shapes for a while. “But I don’t think I love him. Well, maybe. You know how it is. We just—sort of—moved in. It’s easy.”

Judiciously casual. Andrew’s fantasy zags; the story is unspooling. Oh Annie. Annie wouldn’t have given up on weathering love’s wuthering.

“So you’re not happy, then, living with Kevin?” Andrew makes one last Icarus leap towards insight.

“Yes, I am. He’s into music and guitars and soccer and stuff like that. Same as Rick and Eddy were. My type, ha. And he’s gone through divorce, as well, so he knows how things are.”

He just doesn’t understand. Andrew plunges back into ennui. It welcomes him home. Forget hope, it whispers in a heavy Russian accent.

“He’s … number three?” Andrew tries to imagine what living three lives would be like.

“He is. I hope he comes back, though. He was okay. Not textbook, but okay. Okay is more than okay.”

“Ah. That’s sensible—to live with him, then. If that’s what you want, then.”

Niet, comrade! Forget hope!

“What I want? Yeah. You? Still seeing that girl?”

“Ha. That girl my wife?” He takes a huge mouthful of tea and burns his tongue badly. “Nah. She moved away.”

“Your kid?” Annie is staring at a teenager pushing a twin pram in the street below. It’s impossible to read her expression in profile.

“She went to America. We talk on the phone sometimes.”

Despite everything, Andrew is feeling good. Even though he said he’d give up cigarettes and he’s smoking one now; even though the cigarette is making him feel sick—because he hasn’t smoked one in thirty eight days—he feels good. He feels good even though they’re talking about his absent Jessie and that bitch Amy. He feels good despite the pantomime voice in his head—the voice from Licence to Kill that got its feelers in and became spokesman for repression.

Dusk is coming, which is his favourite time of the day, and he’s finally talking with Annie who was his best friend for years, a lifetime ago. Talking to her makes him feel unbearably young. They’re on the dorm roof again, smoking cigarettes and looking for God in a sky full of suggestive stars.

After silence she says, “Hey, Andrew?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for coming down. It’s good to see an old face.”

“Yeah, no worries. Does me good too.”

“I just kept thinking—she looked so much like me. She looked like me.”

“Not quite as pretty.”

Annie laughs again and the sun, slumping into boiling embers, blurs some of her lines.

“Can’t believe she was nearly a hundred, though.”

“It’s just around ze corner.” He flaunts the accent. Not sure why. The fumes from the deathstick are messing with his brain.

Annie laughs again. Worry lines branch and branch again until their feet touch her eyes.

“Are you happy, Andrew?” she asks.

“I don’t know about happy,” he says.

The air conditioners are whirring like sea waves sighing. He shows her the rescued plant cushioned in his saucer. He’s going to buy a pot and cultivate it—perhaps as a manicured bonsai; perhaps rugged until it’s so large it fills his bungalow.

“But I do feel good. I’m not sure about happy. But right now I feel good.”

 

 

Featured Image: ‘Ink Blot‘ by katyjukes, used under an ‘attribution’ creative commons license via Flickr.

 

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