palimpsest

I’ve been having this recurring dream—ever since my divorce—where I wake up in the early hours of the morning, back in my childhood bed. I think I’m about twelve and I’m not at all surprised. I’ve been here many times before, each time exactly the same and the same and the same.

Look out. Phoebe, you’re going to crash.

Sarah mumbles from the other single bed, her voice thick with urgency in the semi-darkness of our shared bedroom. I close my eyes and listen—holding my breath—but she quietens quickly and I exhale in a rush. My sister is ten right now, but the sleep-talking is a habit that clings until she’s at least twenty-five. I remember it used to annoy me so much that I sat on her once to stop the chatter. My weight scared her awake and from then on she insisted on a nightlight so she could see me coming. I don’t think that’s happened yet.

 

I don’t get my own room until I’m sixteen but that’s not important anymore because in the future my sister and I don’t speak. I haven’t heard her voice in six years and suddenly wish I’d listened to her more growing up. I justify it as the self-absorption of youth. It doesn’t make me a bad person.

Maybe it makes me a bad person.

I stretch my hands above my head, stroking the embossed wallpaper I’d forgotten until now. My arms are mine and not mine. They’re soft and slim, unmarked by the tattoos that’ll eventually trace a complex narrative across my skin. Marking achievement. Marking time. Reminding me to be resilient—as if I need reminding. My bare fingers are strangers too. The rings are gone and so is the tell-tale imprint that faded too slowly after I took them off—a silvery reminder of what was. Or what will be.

In my dream I’ve woken up from another—like a whisper wrapped in an echo—and I know what’s coming. I see my future laid out as clearly as train tracks. A life I haven’t lived yet. Vivid memories unfold in front of me, unwritten but as indelible as ink on paper. Each and every pivotal moment clearly signposted as though signalling when and where I’m supposed to get off.

Predetermined. Is that the right word? I’m curious to know what might happen if I bypass stations I know have a broken lift or dangerous cracks in the platform. Will intentionally missing my stop mess with the schedule, maybe even derail the train?

I think about Mark and wonder if I can still call him my ex-husband if we haven’t met yet. Haven’t fallen in love. Haven’t figured out how to hurt each other in exactly the right way. Haven’t discovered how to ease the hurt either, but we never really did. Or is that do?

Past tense. Future. Certainly never perfect.

At this moment Mark is a gangly sixteen-year-old, on a bus somewhere in Sydney’s western suburbs, heading enthusiastically to an apprenticeship he’ll one day loathe. He doesn’t know I exist. Unlike me, he has no idea what’s coming. All he knows is what he’s already running from.

There’s no point resisting. I let myself fall into the familiar loop, thinking about what I might do when I eventually reach 2009. What I would do if I was a good person that is. Perhaps then it’ll already be too late. I make a mental note, 2008 would be better. I should write it down—2008 is twenty-one years away—but something tells me I won’t forget. Not this.

2008 is three years before Mark’s wife dies. Not me, obviously. The other wife. The first one. Abigail. I remember being told the cancer takes two years to do its dirty work. If my calculations are correct—I sound like Doc from Back to the Future but push aside thoughts of fucking up the space-time continuum and instead imagine 2008 me, walking up the steep driveway of their house. Our house.

I picture it in my mind—suburban and solid—even though in 1987 it’s nothing but bushland. I see pale pink brick, the tall portico and the shade sail that was torn on one side before I came along and never gets fixed; the invisible cracks in the walls and in the people behind them. Cracks that won’t show themselves until it’s too late and not just figuratively. It’s a house that won’t belong to me then and never really will, even long after Abigail is dust.

I’ll hesitate before knocking on the familiar front door and Mark will answer and he’ll look different. Younger but not by much. He’ll have that terrible long hair that I’ll laugh at one day when he shows me old photos. He won’t have a clue who I am. But he’ll look happy, I’m certain of that.

The sound of his kids will ring from inside and they’ll be smaller and louder and brighter because they haven’t had the rug pulled out from under them yet. They haven’t learned to be angry and spiteful, haven’t had to navigate being broken. They don’t know how much they’re going to hate me, or why. Or that I’ll hate them right back, even though they’re just kids, because their rejection of me cuts more than I want to admit and maybe I’m a terrible person after all.

I try not to think about those brief months near the beginning when, carried away by new love and ill-fated optimism, we talk about trying to get pregnant. Daydreaming about making a baby together as if it’ll somehow cement the life we’re trying to build. Fill in the cracks. We try names on for size and wonder whether it would be a boy or girl, and I choose not to say to him that it doesn’t matter as long as our hypothetical kid doesn’t turn out like either of the ones he already has. I should have known then.

 

But we try, we really try. Caution carried away by the hurricane. And each month the same result. The universe senses our failure before we do. No baby for you. One less complication we’ll have to deal with when the end comes. Hope turns to disappointment and then resignation. Never really regret. But I feel more for our pretend baby in those months than I do in eight years of battling to connect with his actual flesh and blood.

When I hear his kids’ laughter through the door, it will make me wonder if things might be different if I knew this version of them. But there’s really no point in what ifs, is there? Only in what I know is going to be.

 

So I’ll somehow convince Mark that—although he doesn’t know me—I have things to say. Things he needs to hear.

Curious, he’ll walk outside and we’ll sit on the broad steps that won’t be broken by the postman for another six years. The pavers will be hot under our legs because it’s afternoon and the sun always fixes its gaze on that side of the house, baking the bricks until the air ripples above them in almost invisible waves.

He won’t believe me at first. Of course he doesn’t. He’s not one for magic or fortune telling or anything that requires suspension of disbelief. Which is ironic because I know how much he wants to be an actor even though he won’t have realised it for himself. Not yet.

Mark’s suspicion is hereditary because his dad was a policeman. But I won’t tell him about losing Irving in 2018. I won’t tell him when or where it happens—or how it causes an irreparable rift in his family—because there’s only so much future grief you can hand a person all at once.

Instead I’ll tell him I know about him hiding as a kid—at the house on Finlay Street—to avoid Irving’s drunken anger. That he used to take his Star Wars figurines into his dog’s kennel and that he still has those same plastic figurines and that Darth Vader is his favourite because there’s something about the dark that he likes.

I’ll tell him I know he doesn’t display them the way he wants to. They’re packed away in a box because his wife thinks they’re childish. She’s older than him and doesn’t appreciate toys—not the way I do, but I won’t say that last part as it’s something he doesn’t need to hear. It’s not why I’m there.

I picture his confused face as I tell him more things a stranger shouldn’t know. The quiet rage that still hides inside him. His love of lizards and the knotted appendix scar he’ll one day try to pass off as a knife wound to impress me. I’ll offer it up as proof.

See, I know things. Believe me.

Then I’ll become an oracle—a portend of doom—and I won’t relish it for a second because there’s no going back once I say it out aloud. The space-time continuum is completely and utterly fucked. I’ll be ruthless and tell him Abigail is going to die, that she doesn’t get checked when she should and she knows—she actually knows—but she doesn’t do anything about it. I don’t know why. But I do know when.

I’ll tell him it’ll be awful and that he’ll try to take care of her but he’ll fail and he’ll break and so will their children and it won’t be like the movies—not at all—there’ll be no heroics and no revelations. It’ll be brutal and messy until there’s nothing left. Until she’s gone.

I’ll want to scare him so that—even if he thinks I’m crazy—it might plant enough of a seed to change it. And then it’ll be worth it. The house will stay their house. Their children will never have to hate me. The postman might never break those bricks and Han Solo and Princess Leia will have to stay packed in that box.

And I’ll never know what it’s like to fall asleep in his arms.

But.

What if it doesn’t change anything? What if she still dies? There’s something else and I have to warn him. It’s why I’m really there.

I’ll say to him, “Run, don’t walk. Sell the house and leave. Take the kids and go far away with them and make a new life. And whatever you do—no matter what—don’t fall in love again too soon. Even desperately joyous love that promises to fix everything. You’ll know her when you find her, but trust me—don’t do it. You’ll destroy each other. Because sometimes love isn’t only love but distraction and control and manipulation and regret and it’s trying to fill a hole that can’t ever be filled and—more than anything—sometimes love isn’t enough to make up for all the things I know are going to go wrong.”

And in that moment, Mark will realise I’m talking about myself. He’ll think I’m even more insane, but it won’t really matter. I’ll leave not knowing if I’ve made a difference and—just in case—three years later I’ll try to avoid the place where we’re supposed to meet. I’ll derail the train to save us from the wreckage.

 

Try.

 

I sabotage myself before I’ve begun by wondering if I’ll be brave enough to do any of it. I’m not sure it’s enough to know I’d be giving the kids back their mother, saving them all from the grief and the unstoppable avalanche that follows. It should be, but I think I’ve established I’m probably a terrible person. Selfish. I know this.

I don’t think I’ll be strong enough because I still remember how he tastes and that he’s going to love me—and I him—with an incendiary power that lights us both up as much as it burns us down. I know we’ll get drunk in Paris and we’ll fight and make up again and again and again without learning a goddamned thing. We’ll love a lifetime in a matter of just a few years. But we’ll also end. And it too will be brutal and messy until there’s nothing left.

I wake up for real before I can decide. Every single time. And every single time, it’s already too late. It can’t be overwritten. As sleep fades, the morning sun is clear and hot on my face—but all I can taste is ash.

 

I’m always right back where I started.

At the end.

the end ~