Lorna looks up at John. She is as nervous as a child. He is standing over her, armed with a teaspoon. He’d been looking for teabags in his higgledy kitchen. “It has to stop, Lorna,” he says. “All of it.”
“All of what?” She is sitting on a beaten, leather chair. Her back is straight and her hands are clasped together on her knees. His tiny house is a photo album. Pictures range from old black and whites of whanau past, to colourful prints of his grandchildren. They are a dark, rugby playing brood, and all of them drinkers. He’d shared that in a meeting recently – young drinkers writing their own stories.
“You have to stop all the driving past, the text messages on the phone. Dropping by.”
“I text too much?”
He laughs through his nose, wagging the teaspoon at her. “Yes, you text too much.”
“Sorry,” she says.
“Don’t say sorry.”
“Look, I said stop saying sorry.”
She swallows the sorry she is about to say. As he turns to continue his search through wonky cupboards and various jars, she says: “And I’m not driving by, I’m just…” She sighs.
His sitting room is cosy, if a little dirty. Blankets are draped over old chairs, and rugs overlap on the floor. On the table next to his chair by the fire is a large blue book with his reading glasses lying on top of it. There’s a wastebasket full of used, crumpled tissues. John has a head cold; that’s why he hadn’t wanted to hug or kiss her when she arrived.
He is a poet and notebooks are scattered by this chair. A blue biro is sticking out of one of them. She’s seen him read a few times, in poetry events at the library and at one of the local cafes. He has a slow, hypnotic delivery; he plays with his vowels and tries to follow the structure of his verses with his voice. He is popular. He’s published a couple of volumes, and there’s always a good turnout when he reads. She reaches down and touches the notebook with the pen, and nearly picks it up. Then she straightens, leaving it where it is.
They didn’t meet through poetry. They met in the rooms. He’s been dry for over ten years and she’s holed up on the coast to get well, go to meetings, keep off the piss. John is a hugger and a congratulator of emotional sharings. She finds herself making stuff up just to elicit a hug. Once, here in his sitting room, one of those hugs had turned into something else. She looks over to the closed door of his bedroom.
“I can’t find any teabags; it’ll have to be coffee,” he says.
“Yes, please. Three sugars.”
“Three sugars!” He laughs again. “You want coffee with your sugar?”
She smiles and notices all the sawdust clinging to his socks. How did it get there? Her eyes eventually find that particular photo. It is on the wall above his makeshift computer desk, which is made out of bricks and a small raw slab of macrocarpa. The photograph is of John in his prime, fishing on a boat. He’s holding out a huge fish to her. God, he was handsome. He had wild blonde hair then and the same straight-tooth grin he gives her at meetings today. His arms and legs are strong and taut as he holds the fish, and Lorna thinks about the moment when he caught it, when every one of his muscles would have been tense or stretched. The wind is blowing his hair in odd directions and there must be salt on his lips.
He approaches with a steaming mug in each hand. “Sorry it’s instant. Don’t have the fancy stuff here.”
“It’s fine, I’m sure. Thank you.” She takes a sip, but it’s hot and so is the mug so she puts on the floor next to her feet. There’s fluff on the carpet. Cat hair. Dog.
He says: “You see that plant next to you?”
She looks. It’s large and green and in a paua shell mosaic pot. “Yes.”
“That were my mother’s plant. I remember it when I were a boy. It’s about as old as I am.” He picks it up. “Can you believe it?” he says. “I’ve trimmed it and taken its shoots and kept the bugger manageable. Same plant.”
“Cool,” she says. He puts it down and sits in his chair by the empty open fireplace.
“What’s been happening, then?” He looks at her expectantly.
“What do you think of what I said before, about the drive-bys and the texting?”
“I haven’t been driving by.” She reaches out and touches a leaf on his mother’s plant. She has tattoos on her arm. Angels. Lorna notices that some of the ink looks smudged somehow. “I haven’t.”
“Okay, so then it’s my turn to be sorry.”
“I won’t text you so much though, if that bothers you.”
He nods. He still seems expectant. Lorna looks at the skin at his neck. It is repulsive. Truly. It is blotchy red and it sags. It is prickled with white whiskers, but her chest is still butterflied and racing.
She’d prayed about coming here. She’d even lit a candle. Not in church, she’s still uncomfortable going into the church, but at home, on her rug in front of the window. She put the candle on a small plate and meditated as she watched it flicker. As usual her mind was a scatter of thoughts, and each one led back to John and this room. Before the prayer, she was so sure that she could have him again, young as she is. After the prayer, she knew he’d be kind in his rejection, and that he was going to tell her she needs time to heal. She does need time to heal. And there are thirty years between them after all, and an empty bottle, and a God.
The truth is that he’d been more bothered about what had happened between them than her. She’d wanted it. She turned up at his house after that meeting, the one where the man had wept because he’d been robbed of so many years. He’d shaken his fists and lurched around the room and had to be restrained. Then, John had cried as he shared about a friend on the West Coast who’d started drinking again and comitted suicide. She’d been shaken up by it all, the intensity of it. Prayers back then, all those months ago now, had consisted of this one image: her naked and curled up, and God holding her in one of his big, giant, God-sized hands. That’s what everyday felt like. Christ, it was raw. She’d needed the sex. She’d needed to lose herself in sensation.
“This is called thirteen stepping,” he’d said afterwards, as they put on their clothes. “Taking a newcomer to bed, and it’s the worst thing I could have done.” He assured her that it would not happen again, and that he was sorry.
She’d asked: “will you put me in a poem?”
“You want me to?”
He’d laughed and said: “If you don’t want to be in a poem, don’t fuck a poet.” He made her promise not to pick up because of him, and she hadn’t. But he still popped by to check up on her sometimes, and when he hugged her after meetings, he always pressed close.
Lorna takes a breath and looks at the plant, with its large leathery leaves. “John, I need to tell you how I feel about you.”
He listens with his legs crossed and his blue eyes never leave her, except when he sneezes or coughs or takes a tissue to his wide nostrils.
Saying it is messy. A jumble of things happen. She says some words. She can see him smiling behind his hand. That gives her hope and spurs her on. She tells him those things she’s sure of: wanting him. Then she tells him the things that are not so clear: loving him. She manages between sentences to drink the sweet coffee.
It’s his turn. He leans forward. “I weren’t sure what you were going to talk about. I didn’t think it would be this.”
“I’m not for you, you know,” he says.
“No.” He shakes his head; purses his lips. “No.”
She is still clasping her hands in her lap on his favourite leather chair.
“I caught a beautiful fish today,” he says. “But it was undersized. So, I got me hook out of its mouth and let it go. I released it into the sea to get bigger and better, so that when someone else hooks that fish, it’ll be ready for it.” As he speaks, his eyes drift to a spot in the distance and he wobbles his head slightly. He’s acting, Lorna realises. This is a line. She is his audience. She releases her hands and slumps back in the chair.
“I knew it were a mistake that night. You and me. What we did.” He laughs. “Not saying I didn’t enjoy it. I’m a red-blooded male, you see. I still think of that night.”
She lets him speak. She has no choice; he hates it when she interupts him.
“Now this fish I caught today,” John says. “This fish, this beautiful strong cod, has got a lot of swimming to do, although she’s done a lot already. She’s got herself through the door of AA, she’s having regular showers now, eating; she’s looking after herself. She’ll be right.”
“I’m a cod?”
“Nothing wrong with cod.” He stands in front of her. She fixes her eyes on a particular piece of sawdust, dangling precariously from a thread on his sock. “You remember when I first found you, sitting on the concrete steps outside the hall. You were wondering whether to come into AA or not.”
She nods. She’d lurked outside AA in exactly the same way she’d lurked outside John’s house, unable to walk through the door, but desperate to at the same time. Full of Fear. Full of Fear. If she didn’t walk through the door, she would carry on drinking. If she did walk in, she would have to stop drinking. She didn’t want to drink anymore. She didn’t want to stop either.
The night she’d ended up in bed with John, she’d realised she was just the same as the sobbing man who’d been restrained and just the same as the guy who’d shot himself in his garage. They were her and she was them. They all had different faces and names, but they’re all the same. Including me and John, she thinks. Shouldn’t that tell me something?
“Look,” she says.
He puts up his hand. “Now, let me finish.”
She closes her open mouth, like a cod.
“The progress you’ve made is wonderful and I do care about you, but I don’t feel as you do. Do you see?” John says. “It was a mistake and I shouldn’t have touched you.” He touched the plant next to her and inspects a leaf. “There. Has everything that needs to be said been said?”
She nods. She feels her lip quiver. Tears fall. There is a rigid embrace with him bending over her where she sits, and Lorna kneads his shoulder for as long as he lets her.
She hugs John again at the door and she knows that for him this last embrace is embarrassing. It is a woman clinging, unable to let go. It is irritating female desperation. His cold must be making it worse. He sniffs loudly next to her ear.
For Lorna the embrace is goodbye. Not completely; they’ll still be in meetings together, still ‘friends’. No, it was a goodbye to being close to him. All this desire.
She moves to kiss him just one last time but he jerks his head away. She fits her face against his neck, frozen.
“I don’t want to,” he gushes. “I’ve got something nasty inside me and I don’t want to give it you.”
Of course he’s referring to his cold, but it makes her smile anyway. She says goodbye to his skin, his hands on her back, the sensation of his body against hers. There aren’t going to be anymore hugs after meetings.
Finally, she pulls away. I have been drinking you like wine, she thinks. Just another addiction.
He says: “See you then.”
I’ve grieved for better men than you. She says: “Today is a good day.” He smiles and nods. She walks along his garden path toward her truck, retrieving the keys from her jeans as she does. She hears the door close behind her.