from Oblonsky’s Smile
Sunday morning came and went, and I let it. There was something too languid about that Sunday morning. Something about the sun dripping on everything with its fresh-start warmth, and the sea gleaming, licked clean by the overnight breeze. Summer just around the corner. Promise in the air. Something which said no worries, take your time. You’ve got all day.
I ate breakfast watching the sea through a gap in the trees, then settled in on the couch, cup of coffee in hand, and picked up my eight-dollar copy of Anna Karenina. I could see right from the get-go that it was a different translation. Some of the poetry was lost. The ‘intrigue’ was now an everyday ‘affair’. I’d got as far as the part where Karenin confronts Anna about the affair. It was difficult for me to imagine such a conversation. Just as it’s difficult to talk of the dead, or of their reasons for dying. My wife and I had never tackled issues straight on. We were always skirting around things, too afraid to say the words out loud. Karenin worked hard for a rational, reasoned response. He discarded jealousy, and the humiliation and degradation associated with it. Adultery was, of course, a question of far bigger things. I was neither adulterer nor cuckold but I was drawn to the subject matter and fascinated by the battle between emotion and reason. And it left me wondering – when Ana left did she, or did she not, have the right to claim the moral high ground?
You see, my wife thought I went to bed with other women. Namely women from my work. Colleagues. In particular, a project administrator named Katie Wallace. I didn’t. I hadn’t.
I had been drinking more than usual. I’d spent more time going out for after-work drinks and less time at home with Ana. And I’d been ignoring the sullen withdrawal that was her response to this. I knew her too well not to read her silences for what they were, and yet I pretended not to see. I averted my eyes, embarrassed by her weakness. And she knew me too well to believe that I didn’t notice.
There were other things, of course. Background issues. Context.
There was March, when the northerly blew so hard, for so long, that it stripped all the sand from the beach, and Ana got sore breasts and went off all forms of hydroponic greens; rocket, mesclun, baby spinach, the lot. And by April she was crying herself to sleep each night and saying that she wasn’t ready, she hadn’t prepared, and there were implications of her heart not being in the right place, congenital implications like murmurs and holes. I held her and I told her, it’s your decision. I said, whatever you want to do I’ll support you.
Then I waited. I tested the air for expectant excitement. I waited for her to suggest that it was safe to tell people. I checked her side-on silhouette and anticipated the slow, organic swelling. In the mornings, as we lay in bed I put one hand on her belly and wondered at what was happening inside her where I could neither reach nor see. I never anticipated that she might come to a different conclusion and carry it out alone.
In May, when there was the false spring and the jonquils unfolded their paper-white buds three months early, I said, ‘I thought you’d be getting fat by now.’ And she told me it was much too late for that. ‘If we’d gone down that road I’d be four months already.’ And she held her hand out in front of her stomach. ‘If I was going to have it, I’d be out here by now.’ And then she said ‘Don’t be like that. You said you’d support me.’
And for all of June, when the leafless trees stood like sentinel ghosts along the northern motorway, I wondered at the reasons behind her choice. What if, for example, the thing growing inside her had been the right way around? Heart on the left, the appendix on the right, the right hand lobe of the lung slightly larger than the left, just as it should be. As was normal, as opposed to 1:8000 abnormal. I wondered if there wasn’t something more to her choice than the remote possibility of a congenital heart defect in a baby that would otherwise have lived a perfectly long and healthy life, God willing.
I pondered other questions too. Why are human beings not symmetrical? Why is it that we are all internally asymmetrical yet the laws of attraction dictate that an evenly drawn face makes better breeding material?
In July, when the wind and rain never seemed to stop, Ana suggested we take a holiday together. I asked her where she wanted to go. She said Hawaii. I don’t know why she said Hawaii. Maybe it was the weather – the blustery, battering pre-spring wind had been making her feel bad. ‘That wind makes my head hurt,’ she said. ‘That wind blows a lump in my throat.’
For the first fourteen nights of that August we’d woken to the mournful tolling of our neighbours’ windchime. ‘It’s the sound of someone listening,’ whispered Ana. ‘There is someone outside. They’re listening to us.’ ‘There’s no one out there,’ I said. ‘There is. There must be. There’s no such thing as noise unless someone hears it.’ ‘Isn’t that us?’ I’d said, trying to comfort her. ‘We are hearing it.’
But I too was unsettled by the windchime. It was easy to picture a moonlit belfry and a ghost’s hand on the hard twist of rope. There was someone or something out there, something hunched and listening, other than us. It was like the moment sitting on a yellow strip of cut grass and you hear the thud of falling fruit, and turn to see a grapefruit the size of an infant’s head rolling away from the foot of the tree. It was one of those moments when you realise the world will keep turning whether there are humans to record it, or not.
Maybe it was those August ides rattling her, shaking her, and keeping her awake at night, maybe it was something else. Whatever it was, Ana suggested Hawaii. We got out our world atlas and looked at the map of the Hawaiian group. Ana trailed her finger through Kauai, Oahu, Maui – all the obvious places – and stopped on The Big Island.
‘This is where the volcanoes are,’ she said. ‘It’s like the newest place on earth.’
We stayed in a place called Captain Cook. It was plantation country, fertile volcanic soils patchworked with berry laden coffee bushes and papaya trees. Red and black chickens scratched and scuffed through the garden below our window and in the very early morning swallows drank from the swimming pool.
In the lobby of the Aloha Hotel was an ice machine and each afternoon Ana filled the ice bucket from our room and we set up by the pool, a lounge chair each, a bottle of vodka, six cans of diet coke, and the bucket of ice. We sat by the pool and drank out of sixteen-ounce Hotel Aloha plastic cups that were the same colour as the deep end of the pool. We spent each morning snorkelling out off the beach called Two Step, and the afternoons slumbering poolside. We ate all-you-can-eat spaghetti bolognaise the first night at a small Italian joint just along the road from the Aloha. The second night was pizza, the third shrimp sauté. In the evenings, after dinner, we walked along the winding roads through the coffee plantations, the roads so narrow that when we heard a car coming we had to walk single file along the grass verge. Each time, after the car had passed, Ana came back up alongside me and slipped her small fingers through mine. At night we sat out on the lanai and looked out over the fertile slopes of the volcano all the way out to where the moon turned the sea to a flat plain of silver. I thought then, that everything was going to be okay.
One of the things that changed since Ana left was that I no longer watched the local television news. Instead, most mornings, I flicked through channels ninety to ninety-four, the international broadcasters, BBC and CNN and Fox and Sky News. I watched the international advertisements – Do you live the Intercontinental lifestyle? or Midnight at the Marriot Macao! – and they reminded me of that week in Captain Cook, sitting on the peach coloured velour bedspread and watching pictures of Californian wildfires and Hurricane Rina’s progress through the Caribbean. Watching those ads I always felt that if Ana and I had not come home our marriage would have survived. Ana would have survived. She’d been happy at the Aloha Hotel but we were travelling on a return ticket, all the way back to Real Life.
Throughout the morning my thoughts tangled with the words and scenes that I was reading. After a while I gave up and let the book slip onto my chest and dozed off. When I woke the fine spring morning had been overtaken by a rain so light it sifted down, settling hesitantly on the glistening straps of the agapanthus. The temperature had dropped and the lines of white buildings on the far side of the harbour had long disappeared into the grey-white mist and it was no longer possible to see the tank farm, the long reach of the pier or the overlapping folds of the retreating hills. I felt that funk particular to wasted sunshine in a part of the world where a still, fine day was a rare commodity. The weather had closed in and my Sunday of hope and promise was spoiled.
I could hear a trapdoor opening somewhere. Could hear the creak of the floor beneath me as it threatened to open up. I knew that sound and I knew what it meant – the end of the easy run, otherwise know as the curveball, or the wall, depending which school you subscribe to. It was a sound which said ‘sit this one out son, have another beer, have a cigarette, there is no point in anything for a while, you’re on the bench.’ If I’d learnt anything over the last four years it was the danger of losing momentum. I knew I had to throw the dice and keep throwing them. Day after day til my luck changed.
And for the waiting to be bearable I had to keep my body moving.
So I heard the creak of the trapdoor and I knew I had to get up and walk.
The mist was so fine that walking was not at all unpleasant. My shoes slapped against the wet asphalt. Near the point, I crunched through the broken mussel shells that littered the footpath. I walked along the coast till the light began to fade and then I doubled back, retracing my footsteps through the rapidly cooling shadows. Back at Oriental Bay I occupied a park bench and sat for some time in the twilight looking out across the water. Gulls stood on the hard sand, watching each foam-lipped wave come to a stop just short of their feet. I sat there til the cold set in and then I got up, walked some more, aimlessly circling city blocks, measuring the paved surface of the world with my size ten feet. My shoes ate up whole streets of cracked concrete. Devoured them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heather Mackenzie completed Oblonsky’s Smile while studying for the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2008. She won the AA Directions Best New Travel Writer Prize in the 2008 Cathay Pacific Travcom Awards.