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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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BOOK: Cabin Fever
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At night she lay wakeful beside Saul, squashed into the small space he left her, doing secret sums in her head. If I buy olives they can’t be Tuna Marine, and we’ll be fine. I can wait to see the new Coen Brothers on
DVD
, and I don’t need a haircut just yet.

It took a while before she understood that it was Saul who was keeping her awake. Where had this mouth-breather, this bergie, sprung from? Sweet Saul was gone, his perfume dissipated. She hated his new smell of raw meat, the way his jeans lay at half-mast at his knees when he couldn’t undress himself. In his place was a man who couldn’t care less, an effigy stuffed with horsehair.
Phew
, snored Saul, sprawling drugged and cartoonish and grinding his jaws.
Phew
,
phew
. As she listened to him struggle to breathe, Karina knew that his septum was deviating: bits of Saul were collapsing, like a leper. ‘It’s post-nasal drip,’ he said, scathing, in the morning. He was hunting for the Myprodol he knew she hid in her underwear drawer. ‘I’ve had it since I was a child.’

Nightly she superimposed the old Saul over the one who wanted to lie beside her in the bed, this taxidermist’s model with a taste for cocaine, his eyes replaced with glass replicas that were never quite life-like. He would crash – too floppy or too brittle – into the master bedroom at three a.m., saying the same things over and over until eventually he fell asleep. She got an hour or two before the sun rose and she had to get up to work.

When Karina asked him not to disturb her, he went from their double bed to the lounge, punishing her with his absence. She lay stiffly, still not sleeping, interpreting his movements in the far end of the house. Through her window the sea pulsed, so close it seemed to lap at the rusting frames. This separation couldn’t last long. Surely he would miss her. Meanwhile she would be a smooth-breasted tailor’s mannequin, impervious to the pins in its torso.

The couch wasn’t far enough. Saul’s unconsciousness was a coma. He shouted and groaned for hours, a man in a war zone, his agonies osmosing through the walls. Standing over him, Karina was a child after a nightmare, trying to alert an oblivious parent. She felt her own limbs bunching and shriveling as he thrashed. She retreated to the new space of their double bed, where she moved her tiny Tyrannosaurus Rex arms and wondered how long it took to smother a man. It would be euthanasia: he was decomposing by degrees.

In the mornings she felt different. In the sane light of the sun she sat by herself at the table and counted the number of days it had been since things were too bad to tell other people. Karina was sure that Saul would give this up if she could just make him see the damage he was doing. She was determined to wear him down.

Saul grew wary. He stayed up until morning in the garage, slumped in a chair, smoking careless cigarettes next to the petrol canisters and the bluegum logs, his glasses huge and smeary, his hair stuck together in clumps. His dealer, John, drove out to him wherever he was. Karina thought about giving John’s new cell number to the police, but she felt sorry for him. He was a messenger, a refugee.

There were signs that Saul was migrating permanently to the garage. He slowly began barricading himself in: there was no space for Karina to squeeze behind the dismantled motorbikes, the rusting Weber, the multiple rakes that Maxwell extracted every Friday and discreetly returned. When they came across one another one morning in the no-man’s-land of the kitchen, he told her that he was going to grow his own grass. He searched busily for his glasses. He was an engineer, for Christ’s sake, and he’d read up online. Swazi peasants did it. Really, how hard could it be?

The hot lights from the hydroponic farm shone all through the day and all through the night. Karina could see them through the curtains when she lay awake at two a.m., the baby kicking against her ribs, the heartburn surging volcanic in her gullet. She dosed herself with Rescue Remedy and wondered how much alcohol was in it.

During the brief time that their waking hours overlapped, she took breaks from sewing and went out into the yard, blinking against the sunlight. She called through the windows of the garage, begging Saul to come inside to eat. He wasn’t hungry, he said, resourceful under siege. John had brought him pizza. He stayed in the garage. Empty of incentives, Karina stood by the dead herb bed that Saul had planted when they first moved in. After the birth she would weed it – she really would: she couldn’t just let it go to seed.

Saul got sick of his exile in the garage, where he suffered a clinging cabin fever. His restlessness built over a ten-day cycle. At its peak there would be a flurry of hygiene – a shower, a shave, the anointing of his hair with wax. When she smelled it in the bathroom Karina knew he was leaving. Saul would go out, locking the garage carefully by remote, his final sober act. Karina, left behind, always thought of medieval ladies in their chastity belts, of the rot that sets in over a season of confinement. She sewed her seams on the machine and mulled over the places he would go, but the mechanism kept shuddering. She had dragged the material back and forth too many times, until it jammed.

Whenever he came back Karina had nothing to say to him: she did not make sense even to herself. Droogbek is what we called it at varsity, she thought. Things blurred when you were in the dream state of the
and
universe, this place she had been forced to follow him. You did things, and said them, but they had no real consequences. The threats and promises made there had no meaning. ‘I’m sorry,’ Saul would say, grizzled and trembling.

‘You’re not sorry,’ said Karina, over and over. ‘Sorry means you won’t do it again.’

He would plead with her to allow him into bed, but she felt a creeping pleasure in telling him that she needed to sleep alone. The baby. She would turn away deliberately, lying sloped on her side, the muscles of her abdominal walls adjusting. Primogravida, she would think. That’s what I am. She imagined herself anchored, immobile, with Saul tethered to her wrist in a knot she could not undo, a balloon floating above her head. He would retreat to the couch, trailing his fingernails along the passage walls. Karina would lie awake as she knew she would, all chance of useful rest gone. Why am I still here? she asked herself again as the sun filtered benignly through the gap in the curtains. If my friend was telling me this story, I’d say, You knew what you were in for. You should have left him years ago. She kept remembering something she’d read, or someone had told her. A man was talking about marriage, about men and women, and he’d said, First we break them. And then they break us. Back then Karina had laughed at the idea but she was less sure now. She had chosen her partner, and now she must stay until the years of investment paid off.
Surely
things would be different. When they were, Karina wanted credit for her fidelity.

Saul’s sorties had been getting closer together. He had ventured out every couple of days, near the end: the dope farm was losing its interest. Karina had taken her chance. On Monday she had rounded up his reluctant father and his brisk sister, and they had managed to persuade him to dismantle it. She had been faintly disappointed in his lack of commitment, how easily he was swayed by the simplicity of their argument: ‘It’s too much of a risk, Saul,’ Margie kept saying. ‘What if the neighbours call the police? What about the baby?’

Over the next few days he had harvested and dried most of the plants that were ready. The rest he had sold or given away. Saul had kept one or two of the lights, and the leftover tools had seemed to blend in with the rest of what was in the garage; they belonged there. There wasn’t as much equipment as she had thought: from the outside the garage had seemed more threatening than it was. Now the place was musty and warm, composed of petrol and cogs and the winter woodpile, the way she thought garages should be. Karina wished she had chosen this hidey-hole instead, and that Saul had to deal with the house and all that went on inside it.

Three days later, smoked out, Saul had left the house and hadn’t come back. That evening Karina had lain awake, her lungs compressed against her ribs whichever position she lay in, her eyes drying out in the dark: Saul in an accident, Saul in jail, Saul on a slab.

When she had ventured into the kitchen in the morning there he was, having crept in somehow during the night. He had been trying to make coffee on the gas ring he insisted on using to spite Eskom. Saul had been shaking as if he had a fever: when he had tried to open the red match tin, it jiggered in his hands. He had ignored it, passing on cheerful gossip about all the fantastic people he’d met, this great Italian journalist who had been researching the World Cup.

‘Where were you?’ Karina had interrupted. She had felt the acid crawling up from her stomach.

‘Oh, I went to Ganesh.’

‘But, Saul. It’s morning. You didn’t come home
late
. You didn’t come home
at all
.’

‘We went to Cape to Cuba—’

‘It closes at two a.m.’ Her throat burned, sour with some new taste.

‘And then, um, Polana.’

‘Which also closes at two.’

‘I started talking to this woman at the bar …’ Honest Saul. He wanted points for telling the truth. He grinned at her, charming, shamefaced, crouched over the coffee pot. Karina stared at his gums. Had they always been scarlet, receding from his teeth? Saul looked like a vampire.

‘She didn’t have a car. She needed a lift home.’

‘…’

‘She lives just down the road.’

‘…’

‘What? Why am I getting the tweezer lips?’

‘Saul. You went home with another
woman
? Is this a joke? Are you fucking out of your
mind
?’ Karina had slammed the counter as she spoke. The coffee cup had jumped, percussive. The tin of matches had leaped out of Saul’s hands and spilled its contents, a hundred splinters, a raft shipwrecked on the floor.

‘Baby, I didn’t have
sex
with her or anything …’ He had laughed to show how ludicrous the idea was. His home was here! With her! They were a family!

Karina had felt a tremendous, glacial calm thrown up between them. It soothed the ache in her throat and her fury had dissipated, leaving indifferent gravel on a dry river path. It’s not true, she had thought. We don’t live in an
and
universe. We live in an
or
universe. She turned her back on Saul and went back down the passage to her materials: pins and needles, bias binding, sequins for other women’s accessories. She couldn’t stand watching him fumble among the matchsticks on the floor.

The counsellor at Renaissance had wearily told Karina to bring him in. ‘Get as many family members as you can. Give us a call when you’re on the way – not before – and we’ll be standing by.’ Karina had thought of the men with Day-Glo paddles on the airstrip at Cape Town International, of how many times they landed the planes as they intended, no one thrown forward, screaming, as the craft crumpled nose-first into the tarmac and burst into flames. Someone – probably not the man who had the theory about the purpose of marriage – had once told her that aeroplanes are exactly on course two per cent of the time. For the other ninety-eight, the pilots use their instincts and their thousands of air miles to judge how far off course they can go and still get home.

It was just that, in the end, statistics weren’t terribly useful, Karina had thought. It wasn’t other people: it was you.
You
were the one with your hands over your head, the seatbelt cutting you in half like a magician’s assistant.

She’d had visions of having to drag Saul to the car, the rubber on his high-tops smoking on the cement. He’d lost so much weight that she could have picked him up herself. In the end, though, Saul hadn’t put up the resistance she had thought he would. It was unsatisfying.

Instead he had sat up in the bed. Saul had blinked at her and Margie. He considered his options. He bargained. He laughed. He said, ‘I’m not going.’ He said, ‘I’ll go, but on Monday.’ He had said, ‘Okay, okay. Don’t go, Kar. I’m packing.’

The car journey was silent, just the two of them on the final lap. She had wanted to play some music but thought that whatever song it was would always be associated with this moment of rupture, so she didn’t. When they got there, two paramedics had been dashing across the parking lot with their black bags. Oh, Jesus, Karina had thought. Someone’s tried to off themselves in there. She had angled her body in front of them so that he couldn’t see the running men, but she needn’t have worried. Saul had been sitting hunched into his collar. She had watched him in the rear-view mirror and scoured herself for a reaction, but every time she tried to think about what was happening, she had found herself hijacked by the memory of her mother singing,
They’re coming to take me away, ha ha, hee hee
, and breaking off to laugh. Karina had let the line run on a few times and then she had got out and opened the boot of the car, breathless with the effort of hauling at the wheeled suitcase.

The two of them had gone inside, where the security guards had taken Saul’s luggage. Karina had realised that they would search Saul before he went in. Here he was not himself: he was only the thing that he did. In his daze he hadn’t understood that yet. They had been shown to a tiny room with a one-way mirror, and Saul had signed himself in, muttering about the cost, saying that he would definitely see her in a week.

The next days had been a slow journey in a strange place. There were guides, but they spoke quickly and in another language: Karina had felt like an eavesdropper on the other families’ conversations. Slowly, by copying what they did, she had learned to handle the currency of rehabilitation, but it had made her tired and weepy – and not only for herself, or the two of them. There were so many broken people in the world, people travelling hard without passports, bent under such ordinary fear and shame. They gave themselves up to the tide of sorrow that would, if she let it, wash her onto some lonely foreign beach. It can’t be good for the baby, Karina had thought, floating around in that chemical bath of constant sadness.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
2.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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