BURNT

I wasn’t ready for the day when it came, but isn’t it the same way with all these chance meetings that we create in our minds? 

Some small part of me braced for it the entire year my partner and I moved back to New Farm. 

M and I spoke, once in a blue moon, as amicable exes do. He was at the Meriton now, he’d said. It suited him.

The sterile high rise peaked in the distance right out the front of our rented cottage in 2012. Foggy mornings in winter I sometimes imagined him looking down at me. Like some sort of batman – unsleeping from the night as I rode off to work, rugged up on my red Vespa to greet the dawn. 

Then there was the river at sunset, near his old apartment. I thought I’d no doubt encounter M there, such was my memory of him woven into that place. He’d materialise for certain; I’d surely see him striding or standing still with one of those cherry flavoured slim cigars draped from his long fingers. Square glasses and strong arms silhouetted against the beginning dark. Yet the year slipped by and I did not.

Bustling James Street with that particular bar that was too posh for me.

M had loved to eat dinner there often, always duck pancakes and a Long Island iced tea bloodied with grenadine. Beautifully groomed girls with glittering hair and heels. I’d referred to the women as ‘shiny’ and purposefully turned up in my kicks and ancient singlets, which irritated him to no end.

We’d been there once when he’d contemplated my face, (much younger then), smoothed my hair (much longer then) and told me;

Dating you feels like I’m driving a Ferrari with a car cover over it.

Indignation was the perfect response for that moment and what I had felt for him in general – something between rage, passion and addiction.

Our entire relationship had played out in this suburb a few years prior.

Yet I never saw him around. He was like the ghost of New Farm past.

My time with M had been a damn strange trip. It had certainly left me in bad shape and him in far worse, ironic for two people in the fitness industry. I’d had an Icarus for a man: beautiful, beloved by all, forever soaring too close to the sun.

Soon after we got together, his constant drug use had become impossible for him to hide. He spiralled fast, and from what I had been told it was not the first time.

I saw him struggle and wondered how it had come to pass that I’d been fooled. I’d always looked at meth users with disdain, believing them to be weak people to begin with. Years in strip clubs watching people slip away underneath the glass. I had assumed they were just idiots, that it was part of the underworld.

But here was M and his magnetism, his endearing mannerisms and generosity. In broad daylight, managing rag tag personal trainers and charming soccer mums in a suburban gym. He was a not a horrible zombie but my boyfriend who made me laugh with food in my mouth and sweated through the vinyasa yoga classes I taught, his glasses fogging up as he mouthed fuck.  

Eventually, he begun to lose the concept of time. We’d arrange to meet and he’d keep me waiting for hours. His little daughter was late to school every day. Once he thought I was a cop. Another time I was pulled over and questioned by actual detectives after I’d been with him in public. On nights when we weren’t together, I knew he was out all night. He slept with a baseball bat. The gym would say they’d have to fire him, then he’d turn up and sell record memberships and PT sales within one business day, so they couldn’t. He was a hustler of the highest calibre even when he was barely functioning. He could lie as easily as draw breath. I knew I had to leave but I was a sucker for his suffering.

Sometimes at night I’d lay my cheek against his chest and the temperature of his skin would almost burn me. I’d put my palm on his belly and feel the swell of his organs protruding in a way they should not. I would whisper to him quietly that he could change and he would promise me the world.

He vowed to get clean and decided a sojourn to Thailand would be the way to do it. Leaving a week before me, he persuaded me to accompany his daughter on her first international trip once ‘the worst’ was over. 

Naïveté is an interchangeable word with innocence in some respects. I enjoyed playing single mother to a 9-year-old for a short period of time. The evening before we left, we’d watched a movie and I tucked her in, her little face smiling up at me as though I was trustworthy. Not just another person in her young life who would let her down. 

It had been steamy in Bangkok. His body burnt against me as we touched feverishly, being quiet until we couldn’t, then retreated to the bathroom. I’d hoped we were out of earshot of the child. Guilt didn’t stop us. 

The sex itself wasn’t ever the best with him – he’d barely stay hard without Viagra on account of the pipe and steroids.

But he touched me with his hands more roughly than anyone had before then. He zoned out inside me, he used me like a thing…and for some reason I loved it. It took a meth addict to match my desire for fast, dirty, frequent sex.

I was on my knees on the bathroom tiles that night, trying to be quiet. 

He stroked my back tenderly and was still for a moment, fucking my ass.

Are you ok?

I began to answer, but before a syllable could leave my throat he yanked both forearms behind my back and drove into me brutally, over and over again.

On the way home I held his daughter’s hand, choking back tears and fury as customs officers ransacked my bag. He’d attempted to bring human growth hormone home with him. My suitcase spewed everywhere, they put their hands all over my underwear and flipped through my journal. The female officer turned to me at last and said quietly You can go and then, with a nod in M’s direction, You’ve been through enough.

The breakup went on for longer than the actual relationship. I swung between crusading to save him and being consumed by an unbearable rage that ravaged me from the inside out. I couldn’t accept such a spark of a man could be wasted by their own hand.

I’d call him simply to scream at him for bringing a darkness into my life, for his lies, for his seeming disregard for it all.

But he’d still visit quite often, we’d fuck and he’d stay. He looked so tired in his sleep, I’d wonder how long it had been since his head had hit a pillow. His beauty was fading. He hid less from me after we were officially ‘over.’ I was a welcome break from his ugly life. His new girlfriend was a pipeslave too. His family was manic with grief. They were good people.

Eventually, painfully, I made myself let go of it completely. My face was wan and ageing before its time from long lack of sleep. My body more fluid than usual from being flooded with cortisol. My mouth constantly twisted in despair.

From start to finish it took over two years. I knew more after him. I was burnt inside. I felt I had failed.

Afterward, months, then almost years would pass without a sighting. 

I always dreaded getting that call from one of our mutual friends.

The second last time I saw him, the two of us had eaten breakfast together. He was in good enough form to recount his latest ridiculous stories. Like showing me a clip of him and his missus on channel 9 news fronting court after he temporarily blinded a chopper pilot with a laser pointer.

They were tales everyone would listen to with a mixture of hilarity and horror. Nobody would have believed them except the people who really knew him. But they were often at least partially true.

At one point that morning he’d lent forward and sheepishly asked me if there was a spider on his face. My eyes widened and I’d slowly shook my head.

Surprisingly, we had both begun to laugh until we almost cried, acknowledging the psychosis.

He had been himself despite everything.

Then this one normal day, a year after that breakfast. The last time.

Summer on James Street, rushing for groceries in the break of my split shift, black rag of a cotton dress clinging to my body in the heat. I felt light, happy and strong that afternoon.  

There was a broken figure, sitting on some stairs alongside a cab with the door hanging open. Not out of place in the valley. Recognition took a while to take hold. When it did I stopped and stared in disbelief yet total belief at the same time.

So much grey hair! Had it really been so long? 

He had seen me first but did not want to speak. I closed the small distance between us and he stood, shaky. Bizarrely, it was good to hold him close. The barrel chest I’d laid my cheek on, the dense, artificial biceps I’d held onto for dear life night after night while he bore down into me… nothing but a memory now. He was not even a shadow of himself, he’d somehow even lost height. I was seeing a ghost. Heroin now too.

My hands on his shoulders, his eyes downcast with a shame I didn’t think he could ever feel. M had always been uncannily able to cajole, to justify the ridiculous, to turn water into wine. He was the best negotiator anyone who knew him had ever seen. A magician, a salesman, a pimp. Forever ruled by impulse, he’d sometimes made us all wonder why we didn’t live the same Icarian way. The answer to that was in front of me now.

A door from the units opened a crack behind us, a hand from someone unseen behind it passed him a note for the cab then snapped it shut again immediately. 

He paid the cab, turned to me again.

We’d been talking the whole time but really, no words were required at all. 

The two of us – it had never been true love from people sharing their best. Instead had been awe, lust and devastation – some sort of immense kraken with its dark tentacles wrapped tight around my mind and heart. Now, at last convinced I was definitely free from these dark moorings, I floated from him that day. 

And as I walked away I felt at last gratitude for his life and for mine. As they were, as they may be. 

M is turning 40 in October. He’s in a jail cell and I hope he’s not completely alone. His daughter asked me to write to him at his request but I found I could not do it.

I hope his heart is still bold to the point of idiocy. 

I hope his eyes sparkle again one day. They used to be as bright as his ridiculous diamond earrings, worn in each lobe.

I hope his pulse is a little slower and his flesh no longer feels like fire. 

I hope the beautiful teenage girl I sometimes see on Facebook forgives her dad. I hope she doesn’t feel the rage that I did.

I hope she feels his love as well as his many failings. The opposite of addiction is connection, I’ve learnt since. I hope his family learns that too, and allows them to see each other. If they can possibly forgive.

Each failing is a fresh chance after all.

The passing of time creeps on us all. 8 years on, I am now the age he had been when he half-shyly, half-theatrically wooed me in our workplace with a torso-sized bouquet of blood red Colombian roses. If I had never met M, I might have never seen my own skeletons in the very darkest corner of my closet. 

I might have never begun to understand my own obsessions, my secrets or my rage.

I might have never been brave enough to live a life truly of my choosing, for fear of the judgement of others.

M, for everything it’s worth, you have my compassion from afar and you deserve your own. 

2016

— Photography by Leslie Liu–