With Neither Beginning Nor End
by Julia Sanches
“I’m having a midlife crisis.”
She ashes her cigarette in an empty beer bottle then takes a long drag; the cherry crackles.
He’s reading the New York Times (maybe) and doesn’t bother looking up.
“Fine,” he says.
“No. Seriously. Listen to me.” She takes a sip of her coffee as long as the drag on her cigarette, crosses and uncrosses her legs, pulls her knees up to her chest. “We’re getting older, right? I mean, we live longer. And because we’re living longer, our midlife is actually sometime around our sixties. We retire, feel purposeless, move to Florida or Arizona, play golf, watch telenovelas—whatever. But,” pausing to rearrange her thoughts, she relights her cigarette, takes a drag. (She throws her legs down, crosses them, uncrosses them, crosses them again). “Now there’s this huge fucking gap between our adolescence and our middle-age. Right? So there’s just enough room for two life crises, see?”
With his eyes fixed on the paper, he takes a sip of coffee.
“There are birds falling from the sky in Louisiana,” he says. “And fish dead in the water.”
She slouches further into her chair, hanging her arm across the chair’s arm, her cigarette dangling precariously between her fingertips. She lifts herself suddenly, reaches nervously for her tobacco, rolls another cigarette and lights that on her unfinished cigarette. She wears black (her nervous twitches throw ash all over her clothes, which she doesn’t bother wiping off). She takes another long drag, exhales quickly, aiming at the picture of snowed-down airports in major cities across Europe.
“I’m twenty-five—twenty-six—years old and I’m having a fucking midlife crisis. Seriously. Look at me.”
He obeys, looks up at her. His eyebrows are bristly and disjointed from having once upon a time shaved them off. They grew back like unkempt bushes. He sips his coffee, turns the page.
“They’ve recovered, or found or whatever, some art,” he says. “German art, banned in Germany under Hitler. Hitler thought the art was degenerate.”
“I don’t know. Germany.”
“Can’t you check?”
“I’ve turned the page.”
“God! Listen to you! You’re so fucking blasé.”
“I’m not blasé. I’m hung—”
“I’ve never seen anyone go through life with such total languor.”
“Seriously. Don’t project. It’s 11 a.m. Ish. We’ve slept, what, five hours? We’re sitting in a dump of empty bottle and fag ends.” He looks around. “And there’re who knows how many half-naked people whose names I can’t remember.” He waves his arms, moving his thoughts on. “You’ll feel better in a couple of hours, tomorrow at the latest.”
She ignores him, gets up to clear off some of last night’s debris, but gives up and refills her cup instead. He throws the Sports section over the ashtray, which starts smoking. She jumps, hurriedly picking up the smoldering newspaper and throwing it in the sink. It goes out between plates encrusted with the rests of risotto and the blood of a once medium-rare steak. She sits back down, takes a sip of her coffee, rolls another cigarette. The space they live in is a space where time moves out of sync. Nothing has really happened; the newspaper didn’t burn. Everything is back to normal, was always normal.
He ignores her.
One of the curled bodies rises and walks to the sink, gets a glass, fills it with water, downs the water in a couple of large gulps. The tattoo of a snake coils down to her forearm and up again, its tail indistinguishable from its head. The body then slinks back across the room and into the bathroom, tip-toeing between the other strewn bodies with some grace. She stares at Tom while Tom continues to read the paper.
Tom continues reading, turning the page with his wetted fingertips. He is thin, and seems more fragile than he actually is. He is known for carrying the weight of his own life and that of others with no complaints. His hair never falls, standing tall like tall grass by the seaside over eyebrows that bristle of their own volition. Which makes him look wiser than he probably is, like he’s always a step ahead of you. He has always looked like this. At school, his unusual appearance made him the subject of bullying at least until college (where the formerly bullied bond with the formerly bullied, and the small universe they make is heavily protected from the alien intrusion of the once-bullies and still-bullies).
He finally looks up: “Yes, Sarah?”
Sarah is petite out of a stubborn unhealthiness, but carries herself with enough aggression so that she is actually more fragile than she looks. Only Tom knows this. She is the only once-bully Tom has let into his life. Sometimes she is still a bully, but only to those who risk being loved by her. Except for Tom, who she loves, safely.
“Tom, who are these people?”
“How am I supposed to know? You brought them home last night. Met them at some bar somewhere called… something.”
“I thought they were your friends.”
“No.” He pauses. “They’re engineering a new kind of wind-farm that looks like it walked right out of a sci-fi film. Giant stalks with LED lights that sway in the wind.”
The curled body in the bathroom flushes. The sound of running water fills the flat like a dam. The bodies start moving, slowly, like fingers uncurling. There are yawns; limbs resurface naked from within sleeping bags and coats. The phone rings, the flat groans. No-one moves toward the origin of the sound. Tom, directing his voice at no-one in particular, mumbles “You might want to get that.”
“No, Sarah, let the strangers answer it.”
“It’s your phone.”
Sarah doesn’t get up to answer. Tom groans. It’s nearing noon and the harsh midday light rears its head between the city’s tenements and through the flat’s window, spotlighting Tom’s face, a face that, despite the impatience that purses its lips and narrows its eyes, has the loyalty of a Labrador who will let its fur be tugged and wetted with the sobs of the irrational and disoriented.
They both know who it is, though Tom is the only one who knows why Sarah won’t get up to answer, that what happens during the haze that somehow keeps her from falling into the crudeness of her sober version of reality, stays there. He knows that Sarah will only eve let herself love him because he won’t love her back; that the person on the other end of that line will love her too much and she will use him as a punching bag, always running home at the end of the day to the safe routine that her and Tom have built for themselves.
The flat rises around them like a breath; nipples are tucked back into shirts, feet into socks into shoes. Arms weave their way into coats and fingers struggle to zip their bodies up. If they try saying goodbye (which they do once or twice before giving up), they are graciously ignored. The half dozen or so of the once naked bodies light the ends of cigarettes they find strewn on the floor and walk out the door silently, leaving behind that strange flat where time hasn’t yet arched its back awake and whose protagonists sit and stare and whisper as if the world did not exist around them.
A pinkness, wet and raw, has grown around Sarah’s eyes. Her eyes flutter as if trying to blink back the room, suddenly too bright around her, as if thrown off kilter by close proximity to the movement of strangers. The rustling of bodies around her makes her nauseous, the sounds that crackle through the window rings in her ears. She rises clumsily to close the curtains above the kitchen sink, the black cloth rough yet almost absent between her fingers; as she closes them, midway, her silhouette tenses, she grips the curtains harder and lets all her weight pull on them as her knees buckle and give in. Outside, amongst the playing children and the seagulls, tires skid, men and women scream. There is the sound of a crash stifled by distance, the dull sound of crunching metal wrapping itself around a wooden post. Her body lands with a thud that seems louder than one would expect from such a small frame, as if it was the pressure of a quiet and heavy sorrow that pushed her to the wooden floor. The air cracks awake all at once.
The buzzer rings frantically. Tom hurries to Sarah, throwing water on her face, slapping her, trying everything he can think of, not quite knowing what to do. And the buzzer rings. Once again. Twice. Three times, four. Enough so that all the rings become one long sound, the way dots join together to make a line.
Sarah’s eyes flutter open, flutter closed. Tom gets up, takes a cushion from the couch, places it beneath her head, fills a glass of water, and makes Sarah drink from it. All the while, the buzzer rings.
“Tom. Get that.”
“Who is it?”
“One of them, I’m guessing.”
Tom walks to the buzzer, lifts the receiver hesitatingly, as if it might breach the solid barrier they had, over time, built around their home.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“You know me, I’m just being melodramatic.”
A man opens the door and runs loudly through the still air. Tom sinks into the sofa, watching Sarah from a distance that muffles everything, through eyes that claim to have seen enough to live the rest of time blind.
“Who? Do you need anything?”
“It’s Jamie, I think. Or Jane. The ambulance is coming. She rushed back. She forgot her keys. Have you seen her keys? The car hit her just as she turned” The man sweats. His panicked breathing fills the room. He clenches and unclenches his fists; his nails bitten to the quick.
“Who? No. I don’t know.”
The man looks at Sarah. “What happened to you?”
He turns to go, looking around helplessly, not knowing quite what he’s there for. “Keys,” he says. He wants to search for them thoroughly, as if finding them would reverse the order of events, would take them back to time pre-accident, pre- the realization that he was shocked because of his close proximity to death, not because of Jamie or Jane, whose only feature he could remember was a snake tattoo and a high laugh that bore all her teeth.
“I haven’t seen them,” says Tom.
Sarah gets up, “I need some fresh air.”
Sarah and the man with the bitten nails walk, slowly, to the door, walk, slowly, out the door. The man crouches to avoid the blue doorframe, dejected because he has not found the key, because things cannot change. Sarah, walking beside him, barely reaches his chest. Tom sits on the sofa, looking toward the space the bodies had once filled. The walls of the room are a soft blue, the colour of a baby boy’s wardrobe, the furniture all IKEA, a few seasons old. There are scatterings of read newspapers, cigarette ash and bottles all clustered around the empty spaces the bodies once slept in, curled into each other. He surveys the room in silence then gets up, walks over to the table, rolls himself a cigarette, lights up and goes back to the sofa, the dark blue of a stormy sea.
Through the window an ambulance siren wails; there is the ebb of authoritative voices, the hush of scared pedestrians. The crows still caw and the leaves still rustle around the scene (nature stops for no-one). With an unnatural complacency, Tom ashes his cigarette onto the arm of the sofa and onto his jeans. His hands tremble and he moves them forcefully to keep them from trembling against his will. He rises again and walks over to the window where he sees, through the fogged up glass, the glare of red ambulance lights, bodies holding each other in comfort, a body half-covered in a stranger’s jacket, still (now) from the impact of a car (then).
He sees Sarah with the tall man who had to crouch to get through the door. She stands almost impassive, holding the man’s arm as if afraid if she let go, he, and the past where there had been no accidents and no deaths, would finally run off; afraid that if she let go, the present, where the girl lay, immobile, would become fixed and unchangeable. Tom sees them walk back towards the building, hears the buzzer ring, answers and waits by the door, hearing the footsteps on the stone stairs, one by one, slow and irregular. Sarah walks in looking paler and more distant.
“A girl was run over.”
“I don’t know. She had a tattoo of a snake that curled up her arm. Or down her arm. I couldn’t really tell where it began and where it ended. It’s like it kept moving. Even though she’s dead, it just kept curling around her arm.” She pauses, says “she was here, you know.”
“All the others, though, they left. Apart from that guy. The tall one who ran in here with the shirt, the black shirt. Apart from him, she was alone. And he couldn’t even remember her name. And neither can I.”
Sarah sinks into the warmth of the deep blue sofa. Tom watches her as she tries to roll herself a cigarette with fingers that tremble like palm leaves in the wind before a storm, then like palm leaves through the storm. A silence as heavy as the bright midday light that fills the room has fallen over the flat. Tom walks to the window and watches as they lift the girl into the ambulance, the snake coiling up and down her arm, with neither beginning nor end.
Julia Sanches is Brazilian by birth but has lived in New York, Mexico City, Lausanne, Edinburgh and Barcelona. She is currently completing a Masters in Comparative Literature and Literary Translation at UPF in Barcelona where she is translating Brazilian poet Ana Martins Marques into English and Spanish. She was runner-up in MPT’s poetry in translation competition with the translation of Brazilian poet Guto Leite’s poem, “Mercado” and works as a freelance translator, private teacher of English, Portuguese and French, and as a reader for Random House Mondadori.