Climbing higher with you was the first drug, my first rush. I once rolled on a stone as I jumped, and you caught my arms in yours and pulled me up. For a moment, you looked at me deeply. You were only just beginning to hate me.
We'd pack ourselves lunch and sit high on the rocks overlooking the lagoon and the sea beyond. We'd watch the tourists in their paddle boats below us; fat and uncoordinated. We felt superior looking down at them as they fumbled and struggled, and I wanted so much to tell you that I longed for you, to connect somehow as we both sweltered in that nasty feeling. Our moods soured every day that we spent together in the beautiful sunshine, under a crisp cloudless sky, connected only by actions—reaching, grabbing, falling.
I'd pop cherry tomatoes in my mouth to stop myself smoking. They were like grapes and I told myself I loved them. We sat on the same ledge often, our eating spot, but we might as well have been on different continents. You glanced at my feet now and then, at my reddened arms, my stomach when I wore a small shirt to show it off. But no matter what we ate or what I wore we couldn't disguise our inability to be kind to one another, and our helplessness grew so large it began to mar the brilliance of the bright blue afternoons, and our eating spot became rotten because the notion of us being together had expired.
'Are we ever going to talk?' I asked.
'Talking is the worst idea.'
'I remember when you loved talking to me.'
'I wasn't myself.'
'Who were you then?'
'I'm not sure. Just trying to believe.'
'What does that mean?'
'I was trying to believe in love.'
I chewed numbly on the crusts of my sandwich, but I couldn't swallow them. They flopped around in my dry mouth while you ate yours, unflustered. Your hair whipped angrily against your eyes, and you curled it gently behind your ears. I thought of all the times I'd seen you do that since we'd first met—a hundred, definitely. A thousand. A million, it felt like, as yearning flooded me again.
'Don't you love me?' I asked.
'I think my idea of love is warped.'
I laughed, or tried to, and looked at the darkening sea, 'Maybe you just don't know what love is.'
'And you do?'
'It's a feeling.'
You began to move as if you were going to leave, and I scrambled for words.
'I mean, it's just a feeling. And you're meant to enjoy it. It doesn't have to be so hard.'
'That's your wisdom: love is a feeling?'
'Yes. It's supposed to feel like magic. It's beautiful, and happy, and perfect. And all sorts of other good things.'
'Ah.' You frowned and stood up, grabbing our litter and scrunching it up in your fist. I followed you dutifully, and as we walked back over the rocks, back through the overgrown path, back to the beach full of families and children and life, back into your car, back towards your father's house as the day died and our limbs became tired, I racked my brain trying to think of what to say, of how to show you that we loved each other and it felt like magic, and we were beautiful, and happy, and perfect, and we were meant to be.
But I said nothing.
It was pitch black when she walked into the room. She didn't turn on a light as one would - just stood, her body creating a muggy silhouette. And in that moment I felt my breath retreat. Then she said, 'Don't pull away.'
And she climbed onto the bed. Her eyes glistened, her mouth opened and I thought I saw a flash of fear for a second. But then she crawled closer, gripping me with her fingers which she moved in a gentle rhythm.
'Let's just try it for a bit.'
I was already hard. She lifted up her dress and put me inside. She was dry and it was awkward and strange and then as she moved, slowly, slowly, I could feel myself sliding deeper into her until we both became slippery. I felt the sweat form around our thighs. She looked at me as she rolled her hips, curious, in control. I closed my eyes, and focused down on the warmth inside. In the next instant I got a small fright, a sliver of orgasm creeping in. I grabbed her, then, and flipped her over.
She was surprised, I think: a silent gasp, a gulp of air. She put me right back in her from behind. We began to move again, this time wet and warm and she moaned below me. I clenched at her waist, my hands and arms strained from reaching, and just as I began to lose myself again, she said, 'Tell me when.'
'Now,' I said.
The green light rested on your face while you slept. It was a garish glow from the street that we could have shielded ourselves from with curtains, but we'd never closed them. Maybe it felt safer that way, with the window sucking in the world from the outside. The criss-cross fence across the road that jangled in the sea breeze. The park beyond with whining swings where boys snuck their late-night smokes and yelled their conversations. The cars crawling by in the early hours, heading home after a night at the bar, lolling and lurching through the town's low-lit lanes, their engines sighing, struggling. Cars crawling by in another dimension. Our little room just a passing scene in their bedtime stories.
I lay propped up and uncomfortable just to have you in my peripheral. I'd trace the important parts of you with my eyes in the harsh glow. Over and over: the map of your form. Staying up so late made the tracing feel electric. Your lower lip's indent: a crease so delicate. The crisp curve of your jaw. The motion of you breathing trickling rhythmically into my vision. Euphoria, passing through, licking my toes like the ocean at the shore.
I had your whole body memorised so well I could remake you. But then it wouldn't be you—no current coursing through you. I couldn't imitate your aches, your pain, the constant waning of your mind. I couldn't emulate your ever-searching eyes. I couldn't construct your cruelty, your apathy, your suffering built to shatter, and at the same time, electrify.
It was 5 a.m. No one had driven by for a long time. I slid down to sleep in the small space you didn't fill, my eyes finally fluttering closed to a gruelling display of glittering lights. It always ended this way. The phosphenes lulling me while I lay, burning up inside with all my mistakes, and your beautiful body, warm beside me, unmoving, uncaring, unreachable.
I dreamed that her love was a pillar of sand that rose up and cascaded down onto me in a looping pattern. Her love was a spitting giant, a figure so tall I could never see its head and instead I felt its jagged breath as it choked me through its throat and stomach. I dreamed that her love buried me as it gasped and spluttered and my tiny body broke under the weight of all that sand. And as I lay broken I watched the grains dissipate and leave behind only her immense and all-consuming eyes, her eyes that shimmied away from mine, always. Those dark circles around the blue and grey. And I was tiny within her gaze. And I was tiny underneath her, inside her, as she rolled herself over me like she was sowing panic, and as the sweat grew so did the pleasure, it grew and grew just like every difficult feeling she'd ever made me feel, every failure and all the guilt that was smudged into me like black paint, and then I woke up and saw her sleeping in the nook between my shoulder and my arm, and I turned away.
I awoke in a small way, trying not to disturb you with my breathing, my movements. We'd separated during the night, the twin beds pushed together to create a crevice which I now lay in. The room was murky and dull, your palpable silhouette from the night before was now broken up into little bits by the static in the air. For a moment, I toyed with the thought I was dreaming, and I reached out to watch my own hand raise up in front of my face. No, it was real: our sins borne from years of lust and confusion and heartache. It was real, and it hurt like a bullet.
You grabbed me, then, and pulled me to you, your arms enveloping my chest, your lips pressed gently against my neck. But you didn't kiss me there, you just rested, and I knew I had never dreamed a feeling like this. It was quite similar to fear, in a sense.
'Do you want some coffee?' I asked, and you groaned softly in response. Your body grew warm at my back, your arms tightening around me as if they were tasked with keeping me safe. I began to move away, but they persisted, as if to say the things you couldn't or wouldn't say like I want you or I want you to stay.
'I've got to get up now,' I said, and you finally relented, letting me go. And I don't know why but when I climbed up from your grip I stopped, my legs spread over your body just like we had been less than six hours ago. I wanted to feel you again, under me like my lover, and you looked up into my face with a patience. And I looked back into yours which filled me with dread. I now knew that our sex wouldn't transform into tenderness, our gasps which left us breathless last night were now just part of the silence we had nurtured since we first spoke seven years ago. I was losing you—the only one I was meant to keep and I didn't know how to make us into that magic, imperfectly perfect thing that we both wanted.
That grey morning had already ruined us, just like every other day we forced on one another, just like every moment we spent together where our failures eclipsed our love that had once promised to flourish. We were too old to keep trying. We were too unkind, and I could feel the beginnings of hate stroking at the corners of my mind, reminding me of the all the times you had hurt me. And they were becoming far too many. You were becoming my favourite new enemy.
'I thought we did it right this time.'
She looked at me with tears in her eyes, wounded, unsurprised, as if she had already analysed my particular brand of disappointment. She must have been tired, like me. It had been too many months we'd spent apart, too many nights spent together but in loneliness, and there was too much loss within our love story. A love that had struggled towards the light from the start. The story of us, two lovers who'd shared too few kisses and hugs, who'd been too messy and ugly and cold to each other, and now we stood at a crossroads where I couldn't bring myself to close the gap between us.
'I don't know if we've ever done anything right.'
'But we spoke, we laughed,' she said, lighting up another cigarette while I watched from my perch against the tree trunk. Her end burned bright against the dark night, her face illuminated orange as she dragged on her smoke. 'We did the part in-between. The part where we understood each other.'
'Maybe we never needed that part after all.'
'Then what did we need?'
I didn't say anything. I thought about the feeling of the trunk against my back, the way it curved with my spine in a way that made me lean into it and I wondered for a moment if she would approach me. Would I hold her? I didn't know. I didn't want to touch her, smell her stink and taste her. I was afraid I would still want her. My insides were scrambled, and I ached to have her disappear back into my mind where she belonged. As an idea. Someone I thought of when I heard a certain song. A wish. An imaginary cure for my seven-year itch.
'Speak to me.'
I couldn't find the words she wanted. I didn't know what people needed to feel safe and comfortable the way you were supposed to, or what could make the days easier as they got shorter, or how whispering in the dark might solve your problems, or how to stop someone you love from hurting. Even as you hurt them. I didn't know how to build a bridge, to be a man, to live with any sort of bravery or gravitas. And she knew this. And she threw her cigarette to the ground, and stomped on it, and swore at me, and walked away as I leaned against that twisted trunk of the palm tree, and that was how we ended, and that was when we were both finally free.
Adrian Fleur is a Minneapolis-based writer, mother of two and perpetual volunteer. She has been shortlisted for the New Millennium Writing Awards and American Short(er) Fiction Prize, and published with The Write Launch. She is currently working on her novel Zithande, which is set in a remote part of the Eastern Cape in her home country of South Africa, and deals with love, loss, and solidarity among women across class and racial lines.