Leah De Forest
When my brother and I were small, and my mother was out somewhere—at work, or perhaps in a psychiatric hospital, I don’t recall—my Dad showed us how he could peel an orange. All in one piece, he said. Look. He pressed his thumb in at the top of the fruit and nudged the skin away in a spiral. When he was done, he held the skin up with a flourish. He did this pucker-pout-smile (his standard gesture of pleasure and appreciation) and, I don’t know, maybe he handed us the orange, perhaps we ate it. My brother and I were impressed.
When we told our mother about this, we were tip-toes excited. Her face turned blank.
The summer I turned 12, my Dad took my brother and me out for dinner at the local pub. We ate fries and drank sodas from the bar. How about, Dad said, going to live with him in a pub up on the Murray River? The pub was in Mildura, a place we had been to once on vacation—it was north, which in Australia means sunshine and warmth. Dad would manage the pub and we would live there with him—upstairs, I imagined, in rooms with views of willow trees and river water. Sure, we said. Mum was in the hospital just then anyway, so she couldn’t look after us. I was fizzy with soda and excitement.
After that pub dinner, Dad phoned my mother to say her children didn’t want her.
We never did move to Mildura.
Bullshit like this has trailed me all my life. By which I mean: I’ve been trying to figure it out for as long as I can remember. At first it was just a sense of: huh? What’s going on there? Then it was, hey, did he just…? Did she…? Which became, quite often, oh, I think he did. And then it was just—well, that seemed to be the end of it. For example: a year or two after that hospital stay, I learned that Dad had told my suicidal mother he’d left her antidepressants out. He was supposed to keep the medicine locked away. But, he told her, he was fed up. She should do whatever she wanted. Mum mentioned this to me several times in the years afterwards. I knew her medication was particularly dangerous if taken in and overdose. But the discussion rarely got much beyond a line or two. It was as if the meaning slid off the surface of the words.
What’s up with that?
My Dad had a gift for perceiving his own point of view as the absolute truth. This made him adept at transmitting that perspective to others. What made sense to him made sense, period: what annoyed or frustrated him was annoying, period. I don’t mean to say that he didn’t realize that other people had a point of view. I just think he understood this rather than felt it. He knew that we’d be excited by the idea of moving to a pub; he didn’t much care that we’d be disappointed when the plan didn’t come through. Our feelings were never quite real to him. He did later acknowledge that he’d done stupid things, but these were high-level admissions, designed to smooth things over among adults. His two oft-repeated phrases were: “hey, nobody’s perfect” and “always remember to look out for Number One.”
That my Dad was narcissistic is not the most interesting thing here. What fascinates me is how the rest of us participated in his perspective. Arguments didn’t seem to stick to him. I do remember, reasonably often, having the sense that something was “off.” I might have read that blank look on my mother’s face, or caught a glimpse of my brother’s crushed expression after Dad made a nasty remark about his golf form. But then my Dad would smile. Then my Dad was all right. I could believe he was being reasonable. He’d tip his chin and make an appreciative face and I’d think, oh well. At least he’s not picking on me/asking too much. Why didn’t I think: don’t be a bully? Why didn’t I, at the very least, say: I’m not sure about that, Dad?
Here’s a theory: my father was a master of creating a kind of “shrug bubble” of meaning. Inside my Dad’s coherent story, it was easy to shrug off alternative views. Part of this came down to power. For all that my father liked to say I could “be whoever I wanted to be,” he saw himself as the family patriarch. He meted out the punishments, he made the decisions. (When I told him I was engaged, he muttered that “it would’ve been nice to have been asked permission.”) But it’s also to do with the shared nature of knowledge. The way we look to one another for understanding, and agree on the strongest version of reality. That’s how I mistook my Dad’s confidence for the unbiased truth. The dominance of his perspective made me feel like I understood, too. It felt good, having the answers. It made me feel safe. It was better to enjoy the performance of the orange peel than spend time wondering why my mother was so downcast by our delight. He was a good fun guy and she was just sad. Shrug.
I can’t claim to grasp all the nuances of Dad’s meaning bubble (for one thing, I lack the confidence), but I’ve got an idea about one of its mechanisms. Dad’s strength relied upon my mother’s weakness; his charm depended on her discomfort. In every elision, in every bending of the light, there was an invisible opposite. If he was being reasonable, by definition his opposite (often, but not always, my mother) was being irrational. If he was feeling fed up, then the other person was provoking him. Of course these opposites might have been true occasionally, but as most adults learn, relationships are rarely so one-or-the other.
But he was so good at making it seem as if they were. He liked to laugh—softly, indulgently—when other people struggled with things he found easy. This didn’t just make him appear more capable, more amusing, and better at golf; in the world of our family, he actually was. His genius was in knowing you don’t need to draw undue attention to the weaker/slower/dumber party to benefit from their existence.
To child-me, that vision of life in the pub on the Murray River was a shining hope against the difficulties of my mother’s illness. It was part of a manipulation that required my participation well into adulthood. I didn’t want to believe that Dad would actually hurt Mum—not only because I loved her, and I loved him, but because something so plainly wrong didn’t fit inside the meaning we’d all agreed on. He did hurt her, though. He hurt a number of people. And I can’t just dump in an either/or formulation and move on. There is more, always more—his breakfast menu from palliative care, which I’ve kept, and on which he asked that I select only tea and apple juice; the Harry Potter books I found when I was cleaning out his house, books I subsequently read, and loved; the kiss I gave him on the forehead the night before he died. The miles I ran while processing my grief.
It’s hard work, trying to get at the truth. But I do know this: a shared reality is not always a reliable one. And sometimes my Dad was mean.
The old Arnott’s biscuit tin was rusted, beat-up, with a rosella on it. All grandma colors on the parrot, wings orange and faded green, its perch an acidic gold. Jean-Anne had kept her savings in that tin, up on the high kitchen shelf where the dust grew thick and greasy. Rosie would never have noticed it, not necessarily, except that the rosella had been eating a cracker. The snack looked like an afterthought, awkwardly suspended in the bird’s foot, three overly symmetrical crumbs falling between beak and biscuit.
Rosie stared at the tin, or what was left of it. A twisted fragment of metal balanced between two holes in the charred floor. She sat three feet away in one small corner of Jean-Anne’s burnt out house. The charcoal was soft against Rosie’s calves and the smell (burnt polyester, custard, tea), well, it could’ve been worse. The place was complicated and good because it was where she’d met John. Right over there, by that brown electric stove, which Jean-Anne used to say was perfectly serviceable and turned out some decent scones. John had been putting the kettle on, turning to smile when Rosie walked in the door. John with his white-streaked hair, big hands and Hard Yakka pants, really, it couldn’t have been more ridiculous. Rosie’s body got all hot and his face, well, fuck. “My grandson,” Jean-Anne had said, creaking up from her chair and putting a hand on his shoulder blade. “The Land-Scape Gardener. Just back from Sydney.”
She was so proud of him.
“So, hi.” Rosie stuck out her hand and John took it. His skin was warm and dry. “I’m Rosie and I… don’t garden.” Her hair felt suddenly longer and darker and lanker but then he smiled and a hot thing unfolded up her spine. “I live next door,” she said.
John nodded, took down three orange mugs from the cupboard. “Gran mentioned you.” He turned away, busy with tea-bag tags. “And what do you do for a crust, Rosie?”
“Oh, I—you know Jean-Anne likes the milk in with the tea bag, right?”
John glanced over his shoulder and Rosie saw a line of freckles along his jawline. Just one small nod.
“Okay, well, good, I mean—” Rosie looked at Jean-Anne, but her neighbor was busy
switching on the floor lamp by the tea table. Setting out the sugar and spoons.
“Not long finished school,” Rosie said. “Looking for a job. I guess.”
“Cool.” John shook the kettle until it made louder bubble sounds. He had to be at least twenty. The little turn of hair as it grew towards the back of his neck. The—
Jean-Anne was on the floor of her kitchen, which was carpeted, a fact that had never seemed helpful until the old lady’s knee-elbow-cheek landed on it. John rushed over, his eyebrows pressed together like road markings. Jean-Anne twisted to look at him. “Stupid lamp,” she said. “We’ll have to drink our tea in the dim.”
John helped his grandmother off the floor and his shirt lifted up, showing a small curve of side flesh. Rosie finished making the tea while John put the lamp in the laundry. Her neck skin prickled: good god, the shape of his arse.
It was cold that day. Rosie listened to Lorde on her headphones. Royals, Cadillacs, dreams. The footpath sent a chill through her thin shoes and the flat was unheated and Rosie’s pockets were empty but there’d be another opportunity and she’d talk the power company into giving her a few more days on the electricity bill. There were two-minute noodles in the kitchen and shit on TV. That was the evening, right there.
A week later Rosie saw John spreading tan bark at the primary school. The back of his neck was sunburnt and his knuckles were grazed and Rosie’s hips felt loose. He frowned when he saw her and she stopped, gripped the chicken-wire fence, pretending to—what? She didn’t know. Her bowels went liquid with relief when he smiled. He walked over. “Rosie, right?” he squinted into the sun. “Gran says you’ve been good to her, a real help.” Rosie nodded like a big stupid twat and she felt so happy. The other guys shuffled around the tan bark pile; John’s cheeks flushed and he stuck his hand in his pocket. “Was hoping I’d run into you.” His mouth barely moved. Crumpled post-it in his fist. “Give us a call, yeah?”
That was—well. Rosie waited everywhere, every day, for the moment to call. Knew it was obvious but. Thought about calling when she washed her hands. When she helped Jean-Anne fold her laundry, laid the pantyhose neatly in the correct drawer, straightened the reinforced toes just so. When she found her way to the biscuit tin, when Jean-Anne looked up and asked what she needed, when Rosie lied and said she was just fine.
Three days later Rosie called John.
That first fuck was honey and burrs and heat. Rosie lay on the bare mattress in John’s living room, sweating, smiling. Empty noodle boxes on the bench, an old TV in the corner, and a single chair by the front door. His teeth chinking hers tasted right, his soles matched her toes. John’s hands spread across her belly and Rosie thumbed the peeling skin on his neck. The sun turned gold in the sky.
Then Jean-Anne got sick. Pale and tiny under her blue polyester bedspread, face barely there among the pillows. Rosie’s belly went acidic. Jean-Anne’s hands were soft cold bones. “I’ve got a bloody tumor,” Jean-Anne said. “They have to cut it out of my head.” John stood in the doorway and pointed to his temple, his face a twist of pain. Rosie took care of Jean-Anne when she could, which was most days, since she couldn’t bring herself to apply for checkout chick jobs. She made Jean-Anne sardines on toast and weak warm tea and they talked about what was growing in the garden (soon the daffodils would be up). In a few weeks Jean-Anne had made it to the top of the waiting list and John was driving her to the hospital. “He’s a good boy,” Jean-Anne whispered so loudly that John and Rosie and anyone walking past would have to hear. “I know you’ll look after him for me while I’m gone.”
When John drove off Rosie went inside and counted the last of the cash in the biscuit tin. Five hundred would maybe cover the electricity and a bit of the rent, until her dole came in. She folded the notes into her pocket and returned the ink-dot gaze of the snacking bird. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck. She put the tin back up.
Jean-Anne’s surgery did not go well. Snot ran down John’s face and he shook his head. “She’s not—they didn’t get it all, too weak to operate again, so—I don’t know.” His head was in his hands and Rosie loved him with her whole self and she was stuck. Sorry, she said, she couldn’t go and visit Jean-Anne in the recovery ward. She had these job interviews is what she told him but she went home and paced the hall, shook her head, screamed at the walls.
Two days later Jean-Anne woke up. John called from the hospital. “She’s confused,” he said. “The doctors think. A nursing home. But—she’s got no money for that, Rose. All she had was a stash of cash, and—even that’s gone. There’s, otherwise there’s just her house, and I guess—I still don’t know.”
He sniffled and Rosie felt it like a crack in the ribs. “You know what, John.” She balled her fists. “Don’t call me again.”
“It was me. You idiot. Who took that cash. I can’t help you. We’re done.”
The world yawned open to swallow her.
But Rosie said no.
That night Rosie went to Jean-Anne’s house. Sat on the shiny blue bed and glanced across the row of Jean-Annes on the dressing table: chubby baby with a ribbon in her hair; bride in a knee-length dress; old lady in an apron. Rosie found the papers in the bedside drawers, the lamp in the laundry. Matched it up with its circle on the kitchen carpet, switched it on.
Went home to wait.
There’d been no specific reason to text him after this many weeks. Only need. John didn’t respond; just fifteen minutes of reply-bubbles. Still, Rosie was pretty sure he’d come.
The fire marks were blacker near the windows, streaked towards the hall door. As if the fire, slow to start, had made up for it with an enthusiastic push towards the front eaves, announcing itself to the street. The lamp was a melted curl, the brown stove was black, the oven glass smashed out. Rosie’s heart shivered and she tucked her knees against her chest. The tin fragment was just in front of her, the rosella’s cracker hanging there. Half-eaten, clawless.
His voice came through the side-door hole.
John picked his way up the narrow wooden steps. Tested a bit of floor. It crunched but didn’t give way. He rolled his pants up and dropped down to his knees, crawled across the kitchen. Soot painted his palms, his wrists. “Christ, Rose,” he said, easing his arse down next to hers. “I’m not sure this is safe.”
She peered down a nearby hole at the dirt. “It’s concrete stumps. Not far to fall.” She felt faint heat from his shoulder.
“So?” John said. “You gunna tell me what you want?”
“Just…” Rosie turned to look at the side of John’s face, that line of five freckles. The distance was awkward on her neck. “You know.”
He frowned, nodded at the tin. “I’m not sure I do.”
“Yes, you do.” Heat rushed from Rosie’s feet to hips to back to face. “I want you. I want your Gran to be all right and I want that cash to magically reappear and I want—”
“Fuck.” John stood in a rush. The floor under his left foot cracked and he turned to face her, lining his feet up with the crossbeams underneath. “I mean come on, Rosie, I mean fuck, you can’t just—”
Rosie stood and moved her face towards his chest. His shirt brushed her cheek. He smelled of Lynx and sweat. “But I did, right, and I’m sorry, but—”
“You know I am.” Her voice cracked. “You know I am, you know it’s hard, you know I’m only trying, I—”
He sighed. His posture loosened.
“So. Ah.” Rosie looked up at him, put a hand on his waist. Gently. Soft. “You got the insurance papers I sent?”
“Yeah.” John dropped his chin, wrinkling the stubbly skin of his neck. “I did, thanks. Yep.”
Their lips were almost touching when the floor gave way. Together they fell; together they remained upright. Dirt and old dead grass feathered their ankles and they held each other, bellies chests legs pressed.
Out on the street a powerline sang with happy static.
Leah De Forest
Leah De Forest was born in Geelong, Australia, and lives in Boston. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, The Canberra Times, Eureka Street, and Verge (forthcoming). Her novel was longlisted for Hachette Australia’s 2015 Richell Prize and highly commended in the 2013 Victorian Premier’s unpublished manuscript award. She is due to graduate from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in summer 2020.