He asked me to come away with him. Over the phone his voice betrayed a flicker of old yearning that I no longer shared. I did not want to go, but my husband encouraged me, unaware of the burnt out passion I’d endured with Michael many years ago.
‘You might have fun.’
‘He’s a bore.’
‘But you were best friends once,’ my husband insisted, and I found myself unable to correct him.
‘It’s only for the weekend,’ he said, pressing his lips to my forehead in gentle reassurance and steeling me against our impossible history.
He followed me into our bedroom and stood in the doorway while I reluctantly packed an overnight bag.
Outside Michael’s house later that evening I waited with my shoulder bag, avoiding my reflection in the entryway windows. The house was finished in a colour an architect might call oyster, with neat shrubs lining the large pebbled driveway. His Lexus was parked out front, and I could see his luggage on the back seat, a suit-jacket hanging inside from the handle above the passenger window. But when Michael came to the door he was wearing a loose cardigan and grey tracksuit pants that sagged in the crotch and at the knees.
‘Am I early?’ I asked.
He leaned in to kiss my cheek, touching my elbow with a papery hand. He smelled of German sausage and antiseptic and I pulled away from him more abruptly than I intended.
‘We’ll take my car,’ he said, and pulled the door closed behind him.
Michael had booked a cabin right on the beach about four kilometres out of a town known for bare feet and music festivals. The cabin was cheap and draughty; a basic wooden shed with two single beds and a bathroom that forbid any privacy.
Michael chose the bed closest the door and sat down glumly. He said he was tired from the drive, and I had to prevent myself from pointing out he hadn’t actually done any driving.
He’d made me drive. As we travelled south on the Pacific Motorway I tried to recall my attraction to him, but for two hundred kilometres all I could do was worry over the grease marks my moisturiser left on his precious leather steering wheel while he dozed easily with his cardigan pulled over his paunch.
‘What about dinner?’ I asked when Michael began to take off his shoes and socks.
They were kind to us at the café even though it was late when we arrived. Cautious of the growing Friday night crowd, they seated us away from the bustling front bar, towards the rear of the outside dining area. While Michael negotiated with the waiter, I played with the stem of my wineglass. He became more animated in public, bolstered by an audience to appear witty and popular. And despite the reality of our relationship, I felt compelled to behave like we were more than old friends. I allowed him to do all the talking, and twice I snuck away to touch-up my lipstick in the bathroom mirror.
I had slipped into an alternate reality where, instead of my husband, I had married Michael. I felt my behaviour shift to accommodate this deception of the truth. And even thought I didn’t much like the woman I became with him, but I refused to correct it, limply shrugging off my personality and replacing it with another. I knew it was decades of guilt, our long history of refusal, that prevented me from being clear about the boundaries. I’d loved Michael long ago, and in a perverse way I wanted to see what our life together would have been like if I’d chosen him instead.
When I returned to the table the second time, Michael was more relaxed. They had cleared our plates in my absence, even though when I’d left Michael’s meal had remained untouched. He seemed to enjoy dining out more than actually eating. I guessed he spent a lot of time in restaurants doing business and never ate alone.
While the food didn’t excite him, he was ardently enthusiastic about the wine. I found his elaborate swirling and sniffing at first charming, then grotesque when he finished his glass of local red in three gulps.
‘I don’t have much of an appetite these days,’ he said when I asked if he enjoyed his meal.
‘Mine was delicious,’ I ventured, but he was uninterested in this kind of small talk. I wondered why he had even invited me.
When the waiter brought the bill and Michael’s take-home bag, he told us a jazz band was playing in town. Something we might enjoy.
‘Why don’t we just go back to the cabin,’ Michael said to me, making eye contact for the first time all evening.
I knew it wasn’t a question.
In the morning I walked into town to collect coffee and the newspaper to avoid hearing Michael hack phlegm out of his chest in the shower. It was a crisp, dazzling day, but the beach was empty, all the dog walkers taking to the footpath instead. Traffic queued through roundabouts on the main street, and the cafés were bustling with people talking on their mobile phones. Immediately I knew the town was too hip for us, and I became overly aware of my age, embarrassed by the garish red I’d painted my toenails.
‘How was the trip to town?’ Michael asked when I returned with our lukewarm lattes.
‘Awful,’ I said, and suggested we stay out by the cabin.
We passed the day at the beach right outside our door, again visiting the nearby restaurant for a light meal and more coffee. Michael told me they sold marijuana as a side order if you picked the right things on the menu even though I’d seen no evidence to support this.
He seemed to tire easily after lunch, and our exchanges were encased by long intervals of silence. My own job seemed dull by comparison and I was reluctant to talk about my marriage. By the afternoon it seemed we had little left to say to each other. Without conversation we walked the shore to give the day direction.
The bay coast was calm that weekend, but the shore was littered with oceanic debris from a wilder tides. We stooped to collect shells and pebbles, filling our coat pockets with beachside souvenirs. Back at the cabin I lined up feathers and chunks of driftwood on the patch of sandy lawn while Michael sat in the doorway in his bathrobe, filling the cabin with marijuana smoke. For me the objects formed a castaway’s abacus, and I counted and re-counted them, trying to arrange the items into some kind of meaningful pattern. Masked behind my sunglasses, I watched Michael struggle to keep awake, quietly repulsed by his pale knees escaping beneath the hem of his bathrobe and exposed to the setting sun.
We went straight to our usual table for dinner. The waiter nodded to us in recognition and brought glasses of water and the wine list to the table as soon as we’d settled. I ordered a salad to start, hoping to fill up most of the evening at the café, prepared to eat three courses to avoid the silence back at the cabin.
As usual, Michael’s mood improved quickly. He talked about the lighthouse we’d seen from the beach and asked sincerely about the sunburn I’d been unable to hide with make-up.
More waiters stopped by to say hello, though I doubted we were the highest paying customers that evening. Michael appreciated their attention, and reached over to squeeze my hand in enjoyment. I flinched at the touch, but didn’t shake away his fingers. I wanted to think I was warming to him, whether or not it was really possible.
The wait-staff, I’d noticed, were mostly backpackers who’d somehow become trapped by the northern New South Wales border on their saunter around Australia.
I remembered the futile hospitality cycle; I’d lived it in London in my early twenties, drinking my tips at the bar where I worked and failing to see much of the country. I’d always promised myself I’d go back one day and explore Europe properly, but my intentions had been sidelined indefinitely by a long crawl up the corporate ladder and a marriage to a man who believed in acquiring assets over memories.
Michael, I found out, had travelled widely. One of the benefits of being a bachelor, he told me, and I wondered if the hint of sadness in his voice was my own inflection. He told me about business dealings in London and New York and more recently Dubai.
‘I’ve never had a beach holiday,’ he said. ‘It’s likely this will be my first and last.’
He spoke without bragging, pausing with great effort to remember specific dates and locations of the places he had been. I was touched by his insistence of accuracy. He wasn’t a lazy storyteller the way my husband was, who often skipped details, rushing to a punch-line made redundant by his retelling.
Listening to Michael was engaging, I remembered many late nights in the law library with him, our study hours wasted in conversation, followed by the bus ride home when we would be jostled against each other by the other passengers, raising our voices to be heard over the racket.
This time when he suggested we go back to the cabin, I didn’t object.
Outside the cabin Michael spread a blanket on the grass and waited solemnly for me to join him. The stars implied a level of intimacy I was unprepared for, but as I lay down beside him I was filled with a giddying sense of anticipation. The wine flooded through my limbs as I watched the sky.
I’d always considered Michael a nuisance, the part of my past I’d been unable to shake, but perhaps it wasn’t our closeness that I resented, instead my inability to act on it. He had an irresistible edge of ruin. He was made attractive by these boundaries, by the space he created where I wasn’t allowed to give in.
My marriage relied on respect and balance. I understood my husband, and he knew me. We often indulged in well-timed moments of privacy, but never really ran out of things to say. There was a sequence to our married life. We thrived on safety. Our life was quietly comfortable and beautifully dull.
And yet with Michael I yearned for everything to become unhinged. With him, I wanted to let myself unravel.
When he touched my cheek I didn’t pull away.
‘I’ve missed you,’ he said.
I tried to focus on the spiral of stars as his hand roamed across my stomach. I pressed my fingers to the back of his hand, ceasing the movement, but my protest was weak and he knew it.
He leaned down to kiss me. I raised myself towards him, but he quickly turned away, bleating out a painful, rattling cough.
‘Sorry,’ he said, covering his face. ‘I’m sorry.’
I sat up and rubbed his back.
‘Let’s go inside,’ I said. ‘It’s too cold out here.’
Michael shivered into sleep while I stayed awake listening to his ragged breathing. His body was failing him. I knew it as I tucked him into bed, gathering extra blankets from the linen chest. This was not the unravelling I’d hoped for. This was something else entirely. But I’d been too occupied deflecting romance to notice the darkening under his eyes and his inability to tan while my own arms browned effortlessly.
‘He’s sick,’ I told my husband on the phone in the morning.
I’d packed the car while Michael showered, and we’d then decided to skip breakfast and instead take one last walk along the shore of the Pacific.
My husband didn’t sound surprised when I told him about Michael’s health. He said he’d known for a while. Subconsciously I did the math, charting all those missed dinner parties like the tides. I realised this was something my husband had kept from me. He had been the one to stay in touch with Michael when I became lazy with emails. I realised now the two of them shared more than the occasional glass of merlot and late night phone conversation about finance and the reach of global corruption.
They’d shared me.
And Michael’s illness meant my husband could relax at last. He was finally going to have me all for himself.
But Michael was a master manipulator. With the phone calls, he’d been conditioning my husband. It was a way for Michael to maintain control, even when I had given him up. I saw now that even my marriage had been part of Michael’s plan. He’d known it would turn out like this. He’d let me go intentionally.
While my husband filled me in on the details I began to replay the weekend, slotting in all the symptoms of Michael’s disease. I selfishly regretted my weak moments, but my sorrow felt far off, relief pounding at me instead. I finally knew I had made the right choice, as though it had been my choice to make.
I was pleased for the mistakes I hadn’t made. If I’d chosen Michael all those years ago, I’d be phoning his sister about the arrangements, I’d be refinancing the house. But I was not about to become a widow. I was losing my long time friend, but gaining so much more. I felt clarity, and knew it was wrong to feel like I’d escaped. This, I knew, would be my greatest betrayal. To Michael and my husband. But I finally felt free.
‘Where is he now?’ my husband asked.
‘It’s OK,’ I said. ‘He can’t hear me.’
‘Did you upset him?’
‘No, we’re down the beach. We’re just about to drive back. I’ll be home in a few hours.’
Earlier as we’d walked the waterline, I’d held Michael’s hand and kept a slow pace. Ritualistically, we returned our shells and wave-worn rocks to the sand. Michael said he wanted to swim before we went back to the city.
‘It will be freezing,’ I told him.
He’d shrugged as though it didn’t matter either way.
It was his first beach holiday, I remembered, and couldn’t deny him.
‘He’s swimming,’ I told my husband, turning back to the shore. I could see Michael making his way into the ocean; a pallid, out-of-shape old man. He was waist-deep when he turned back to me and waved.
I hardly knew him anymore, but I was finally struck with sorrow, my cruel relief giving way to agony growing in my chest. I realised with this holiday Michael was farewelling me. We’d both been counting the days, but now time seemed too short, the hours already calloused by my impatience.
‘Keep an eye on him,’ my husband said. ‘He never learnt how to swim.’
I watched Michael wade out past the breakers but I didn’t call him back.
You can read more about Megan and her fiction at http://megansfictions.blogspot.com.
The Australian Literature Review