‘I can’t believe it’s you,’ he says. ‘After all this time. You still look great. Better than you did when you were 17.’
He hasn’t changed – smooth operator – my mother called him, but I accept the compliment in the spirit with which I hope it is intended. He looks good too; well-travelled, lean, familiar – as if time has burnt away the years.
We sit together by the waveless ocean, gulping ice-cream like children. He talks of the wife who left him years before, taking their little girl. ‘She’s all grown up now,’ he says. ‘But I don’t know who she is. How can you know someone you only see once a year?’
The alarm bells began to ring. How can you settle for only seeing your child once a year? For years?
When I first met Michael we were still at school. I was 16, he was 17. It would be fair to say that cliches abounded when we first got together –
the love of my life, soul mate, I can’t live without you, you are the sunshine of my life, loneliness walked out the door when you walked in, you’re just too good to be true –
phrases falling from our lips like almond blossoms at the end of spring. We rejoiced, we celebrated, we exchanged friendship rings, we practiced the happy couple routine until it was almost perfect; but inside I yearned for things to be different. My heart was joyous but my spirit was bereft. We were playing at love, lying to each other even as we flourished.
Michael’s best friend was my cousin, Patrick. Patrick was a heroin addict. He died five years ago. The coroner was unable to determine if his overdose was accidental or deliberate. The fact that he may have taken his own life haunts his mother, my aunt, to this day. She blankets her sorrow with an excess of tea and creamy cakes, hardening her arteries in the hope it might harden her heart.
Michael began taking heroin 3 months after we met. He was a full-blown addict by the time he was 18, yet like most addicts claimed he could give it up any time he wanted. His addiction spoiled the way we knew each other. He was late for our dates, often unwashed and grimy, frequently guilty of stealing the paltry amount of money I earned packing groceries in the local supermarket after school.
He continued to tell me he loved me, that I was the most beautiful girl he had ever met; but I knew even then – young as I was – that to settle just for love wasn’t enough. Love is just a four letter word, after all. I wanted something polysyllabic.
It was a bus ride that broke us up. The 431 into the city. Michael was trying to go cold turkey. His choice, so he said even though I had heard his mother scream an ultimatum at him through his bedroom door. “Give up the drugs or get out,” she shouted in-between glasses of cheap chardonnay, her lipstick smeared across her teeth. Michael had no choice but to try- he wasn’t keen on sleeping on the streets.
It was a hot summer afternoon. The bus was stuffy. A young Chinese boy ate spring rolls with a soy dipping sauce. The smell of the soy rose, acrid in the heat. Michael was scratching his neck, fidgeting, swatting at invisible insects in the air.
An old Greek lady sat across from us, dressed entirely in black. She fixed her beady eyes on me for the entire journey, pointing a horned finger in my face as she got off at Town Hall. ‘He no good for you,’ she muttered. ‘Good for nothing.’
‘What do you know, you old bag!’ Michael shouted after her; but I knew she was right – there was a wisdom in her eyes that couldn’t be denied. Michael was affronted for the rest of the journey. ‘She doesn’t even know me,’ he said. ‘I’m going to amount to something and when I do she can go and take a running jump.’
When we got off at our stop the air was thick with the sound of cicadas. Michael was scratching like a thing possessed, drawing blood at his neck like a vampire had lodged there. ‘I can’t stand it,’ he said. ‘I need some cash. There’s a pub round the corner where I can score. Please, babe, help me out.’
He held out his hand. The fingers were white, delicate as a girl’s. I could see the blood pumping in the veins at his wrists as if begging for mercy. As I handed over my hard-earned cash something voiceless flew away. With fervour, Michael moved into the shadows of the pub. A finch sat in the gum tree by the doorway, regarding me. It chose not to sing and I knew in that moment that it was right for me to choose not to stay.
I boarded a bus. I don’t know where it was going. As it pulled out from the kerb, Michael emerged from the pub looking for me. For one wild moment I hesitated, the gleam of the person he used to be caught between my fingers, but then he staggered, clutching at a lamp post – and it was gone.
Michael has finished his ice-cream. ‘I used to hate ice-cream when I was using,’ he says,’ But now I can’t get enough of the stuff. I’ve been clean for over 5 years.’ Seagulls scuffle in front of us, fighting over hot chips someone has discarded.
‘Do you ever wonder what it would have been like over the past 25 years if we had stayed together?’ Michael asks. A busker plays a guitar somewhere in the background, singing Bob Dylan’s A Simple Twist Of Fate – it is eerily appropriate –
They sat together in the park
as the evening sky grew dark
she looked at him and he felt a spark
tingle to his bones.
‘Twas then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate.
‘What’s the point in wondering?’ I reply. ‘What’s done is done, we can’t change it.’ But I’ve wondered for years what would have happened to Michael if he had kicked the blinding intensity of his habit back then when it really mattered. And I’ve wondered also what would have become of me if not for that fateful moment on a city bus when a little, old Greek lady made me realise I shouldn’t settle just for love alone.