The Beginner's Guide to Living (2 page)

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
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The crumpled duvet gives the dress shape, a body, different from hers, as I lay it out on the bed and return to the closet. I used to hide in here when I was small, it's deep enough to forget who you are. And next to a box of tangled scarves I find what I came for, at least it seems that way as I cradle it in my hands.

My mother's camera.

She taught me how to use it as soon as she was sure I wouldn't drop it, though she'd always hover and make me wear the strap around my neck. Of course I did drop it, once. At the zoo. She gasped, and for a second I saw her, this woman who loved her camera; and then the moment was gone, she was my mother once more. It was ages before she trusted me with it again.

Her Canon AE-1 SLR.

I stroke the dent next to the case clip, the dent that I made, and I feel the camera's familiar weight. I know she'd want me to have it but I can't ask. Dad might say no. He might return it to the back of the closet—whether he's capable of this, I can't be sure. I look through the viewfinder at my parents' room, at its smallness, everything leaning in on itself through the lens. His and her side of the bed. My finger hurts as I grip the body of the camera, so I unwind the hair; it curls into a question mark on my mother's pillow and leaves a lacing of white dents on my skin. I go to take a picture of it—there's still enough sun coming in through the window, my mother always preferred natural light—but I can't see the hair through the lens. It's as if it doesn't exist at all.

The front door bangs open. My brother's voice. I grab the dress and the camera and head for my room where I shove my mother's stuff into the box under my bed.

I never called her
before she died.

*   *   *

Dad sends me out for some cigarettes after dinner, and as I walk past the church opposite Degrazis' neighborhood grocery store there's a sign outside:
Life's short, God's infinite.

I spit into the gutter. Then I cross the road to buy Dad his cigarettes.

*   *   *

My father sleeps next to a gap. My mother lies in the earth. Adam's dreaming of the big deal. Me, I may never sleep again until I do what must be done.


when I wake up. There's a mynah bird tapping on the window and a faint smell of smoke. My ass is itchy. I get this far before I submit to the sensation of being cored and see my mother being lowered into the ground. In a box.

Day seven.

Better than yesterday. At least now I know what I have to do.

In this world there are answers for all kinds of shit. All you need is the right question.

I pull out my notebook, most of its pages still blank, and write:

1. Why did she die?

Because she got slammed by a car going too fast, weighing too much, filled with the velocity of somebody not giving a damn about other people's lives.

I saw an old guy get hit by a Volvo once, down by the shops. Saturday afternoon, about to sink my teeth into a spearmint chocolate chip ice cream cone, and this guy's flying, doing a slow-motion twirl. The weirdest thing was his shoe. It had a life of its own, like a leather bird riding the thermals in an upward spin, his foot reaching toward it, never quite making it, all so slow and graceful and not quite Saturday afternoon, and then the thud of him landing behind the car. The stillness in the wake of it, before I dropped my ice cream and people remembered that they were meant to help. And then
landed. The old guy's shoe. Dropped between a woman carrying a baby and a guy in a suit, and I remember thinking,
Lucky no one got hurt

Don't know what happened to the old guy in the end. I took off telling myself I was too young to be of help—at twelve I knew nothing about death. But what does anyone know? Unless you're dead, but hey, that's the biggest joke of all. Unless you believe those people who say they died, entered the tunnel, saw the bright light, and came back. Like holding your breath underwater till your lungs become liquid, your arms all limp, and you think, it's up to me now, I can choose. But you can't, your body fights you and says,
Don't think I'm going to let you go

It's just oxygen, of course, your lungs screaming out for it. Scream hard enough and you see white light.

Did Mom?

Maybe I have the wrong question:

2. Is it terrifying, the moment of death?

We're not having roast tonight, or pizza. We've been invited to someone's place, for sympathy food. Adam's been out all day catching up with people; on the way back he visited Mom's grave. He's in the kitchen, his face grappling for control, when I come in. “Weird, when you think about it. She'll spend more time in that one place than anywhere else.”

“Now look who's getting all deep,” I say to smooth the unease of his confession, but all he does is curl his lip, and say, “Prick.”

Dad saunters in as Adam goes out.

Dad in one of his talkative moods. “Will.”


It's genetic.

He's wearing the green sweater Mom gave him last Christmas. He doesn't like it much—being so tall, he says it makes him look like a tree. We're all tall, a skyscraper family. At least in that sweater he looks as if he's got someone taking care of him. Wonder how long that'll last. “So, whose house are we going to?” I ask.


“Who's Ray?”

“He was at the wake,” says Dad, heading into the hall.

I follow. “Don't remember him.”

“He was with his wife and daughter.” Dad flattens his hair in the mirror. Mom always did that for him. “I told you about him. He used to go out with your mom.”

“We're having dinner with Mom's ex?”

They say loss does strange things.

“Well, sort of. He was also a friend of mine.”

“Why don't I know them?”

“It was a long time ago, before you were born.”

Adam comes in wearing an ironed shirt. He checks out my old jeans and a T-shirt Mom bought me. At least Adam dresses himself. “I'm meeting some friends for dinner.”

“What about Ray's?” Dad asks.

“I'm not coming. I don't even know them.” Adam rakes his fingers through his hair in front of the hall mirror. He looks at his watch then back at Dad. “Tom Wallace is picking me up in about ten minutes. You remember Tom.”

“Yes, I think so. You drive, Will, you need the practice. Not long till you go for your license now.”

Dad drops the keys into my hands and heads out the front door.

“Nice work,” I say, nudging past Adam.

“What?” He raises his eyebrows and goes back to realigning his hair, his reflection blocking mine, except for a slice of my head. He is my brother but he is closed to me.

If I had my notebook I'd write:

3. Why do some get to live, and others die?

Ray's house is yellow. Below the knocker, there's a sticker,
We acknowledge the Wurrundjeri people as the traditional owners of this land
. A political front door. They can't be friends of Dad's. It opens.

“Ray, how are you?”

“Good, thanks, Michael. Come in. And you must be Will,” says Ray, shaking my hand. He's much thinner than Dad. His gray hair is pulled back into a ponytail and he's wearing a black shirt. I manage a smile as he takes us through to the living room. The walls are crowded with paintings and framed posters, the coffee table full of homemade dips and stuff. The whole house has a congested feel.

“So, Will. Are you still studying?”

“Yeah. I'm in Year 12.”

His ponytail brushing his shoulders, Ray gives Dad a knowing look. “So you've got exams coming up soon?”

“Mmmm,” I nod, recognizing one of the posters—it's of the South American guy from that movie, the one where he becomes a revolutionary after crossing the continent on a motorcycle.

“Taryn!” calls out Ray, and she runs in. I can't believe it; it's the girl from the dream. The one who wore white to the wake. “You remember Michael, and this is Will.”

“Hi,” she says, her tooth resting on her lip.

“Hi.” The taste of chocolate in my mouth. I focus on that poster. Che, that's who he is, Che Guevara, the certainty of his name helping to keep the blood out of my cheeks. But Taryn's not helping. She's sitting next to Ray, inspecting us, the way we move, letting her eyes run all over us, and mostly over me.

“Taryn's a year behind you at school, Will,” says Ray, spilling dip on his chin. “So, Michael, you're already back at work?”

“Couldn't see any point in taking extra time off.”

Taryn leans over, her hair so long it sweeps my knee. “Will, there's something I want to show you.”

She stands, her skirt taking a moment to fall down her leg, and I follow her, because right now she's my white rabbit, except her hair's the color of the cat Mom used to have. Marmalade. It was her cat, she always said, because she never had a girl. Figure the logic. I want to ask Taryn where we're going, except it doesn't matter; there's something about her feet, the way they rise up to me naked and pale, a little pink around the edges.

“Thought they might need some time alone,” she says.

We're in the kitchen, and she's filling glasses with water, her finger touching mine as she hands one to me. This time my cheeks refuse to oblige. I go for cover at the table that squats in the middle of the room. “Where's your mom?” I ask.

“She's late but she should be here soon.”

“Are you an only child?”

“No. I have two sisters, but one's in India, and the other one is out. Couldn't do the mourning thing with strangers.”

I want to ask her if she can but the words dissolve as she smiles and hooks her hair behind her ears. Taryn. She has green eyes, freckles on her cheeks, a small scar above her lip—beautiful, that's all there is to think about her. The sinkhole in my stomach fills a little. I close my mouth.

“I can't imagine…” She frowns.


“Do you want to break things?”

I want to break the whole world open, dig around in its entrails till I find some answers, but I don't think that's what she means. Taryn goes over to the bench, draws a psycho-sized knife out of a block, holds it up in front of her before passing it, hilt first, to me. It's heavy in my hand but it feels like someone else is holding it.

“Cut into the table,” she says, “like this.” She puts her hands, warm beyond reason, around mine and drags them across the surface, slicing a groove with the knife. Her breath smells of lime. Letting go, she whispers, “Go on, it's all right.”

So I do, I carve into the wood and feel its softness as it gives in to the blade, hardly any resistance at all. If I slip, it'll cut straight through me it's so sharp; it won't worry about flesh and bone, just keep going till it's made its way to the other side. There's something gratifying in the way the wood submits.

“I did that when my boyfriend dumped me last year. It felt great.”

I can't imagine anyone leaving her. She traces her finger over a long groove next to mine.

“Was your mom beautiful? Dad said she was.”

“I…” Someone else is in the reflection of the knife.

“Mom, finally.” Taryn grips her mother's shoulder. They turn toward me, their mouths so alike, both small.

“Sorry, traffic was a nightmare. I'm Sandra.”

As I put down the knife she holds out her hand. It's cold. Smooth.

“I'm Will.”

“Will, I was sorry to hear about your mother. I knew Anna well when we were younger. Wish we'd got back in contact earlier, but you know how it is.”

My eye is drawn to the freshly carved groove. It's about the length of my forearm, the raw wood lighter than the varnished surface, barely visible, the color of flesh. They're both watching me, these women, and suddenly all their sincerity feels like grabbing. “I should be getting back.”

Sandra nods. “Of course. I'll be there in a minute.”

She goes over to the sink, her jacket pulling across her shoulders, her hair rolled up in a ball at the base of her neck.

Taryn follows me, touches my arm, whispers, “You know, once you've carved into our table, you're one of us.”

I look at her hand and for a moment it all feels creepy, this family with their table witness to their lives. But she's close, so close I can smell her, her scent wrapping itself around me, filtering its way in.

4. Is it possible for others to taste your pain?

After dinner, while Dad's in the bathroom, Ray says, “I know your dad's a bit on the quiet side, so if you need someone to talk to.”

I look at this man I've only just met, his nose that's lost its way, one of his front teeth dead.

“Will, your mom and I, a long time ago…” He checks the door through which Sandra left. “A long time ago, we were close.”

There's an unwieldy silence; his confession has no place to go.

“You'll come back, won't you, Will?” asks Taryn, and I know I must. There's something about how they hang together, the way they're allowing me in.

“Sure,” I say to her.

I want to touch her freckles, one by one. They're like constellations—make me think that if I joined them together, dot to dot, some map to the universe would appear across her face.

5. When one thing ends, does another always begin?

Dad's staring into the absence of traffic as he drives us home. His neck looks older, the skin darker—it's a long time since I really looked at my father, how he holds the steering wheel, pushing it away from him, his obsession with adjusting mirrors as if it will somehow save him from his fate. My father has friends I never knew about and together they have a past, a pool of memories. Jesus, for all I know, tonight I met my mother's one true love.

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
8.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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