The Signs in the Suburbs

Rafael S.W. writes short stories and poetry and is a founding member of ‘Dead Poets’ Fight Club’. He’s been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Voiceworks, and Award Winning Australian Writing. A regular contributor to Going Down Swinging online, he also enjoys poetry slams and giant-sized chess games. www.rafaelsw.com

 

 

The Signs in the Suburbs

I hadn’t seen her for years, and then one night she was suddenly there, by the roadside. In the glance of the headlights my eyes weren’t quite sure it was her. But my heart was. I stopped the car as suddenly as the rainslick would allow and threw an illegal u-turn. I felt a small jolt of adrenaline, like a police car had passed my rear view mirror. When I pulled up it was clearly her again. She hadn’t even changed much. I walked over to her. She said nothing and looked at me in a way that was slightly familiar but mostly sad. New and Out Now, the words around her said, as if she was something from space. It was in a hideous pink bubble font, one I knew she wouldn’t have chosen had she been given a choice. I watched her for a long time, headlights gleaming off the sprinkles of rain on my coat and the shine of her metre-wide cheeks.

‘I saw Alice today,’ I casually said over dinner. ‘On a billboard of course. Not in person.’

‘Alice who?’ Jen said, and I was shocked for a moment by her ignorance and then had to remind myself that my past and its petty miseries was my own.

‘Alice, my, well ex, I guess.’

‘Right. What was she doing on a billboard?’ Jen asked, with her mouth half-full in a way that showed utter disinterest in whatever it was that I was feeling. She was older than me, and probably more successful although we didn’t speak about it. I didn’t try to explain myself, and a few nights later when we had sex, it wasn’t her I was thinking about.

 

Later that week I found myself driving out into the suburbs again. It wasn’t as if I’d ever lived, so I had no excuse for this kind of nostalgia. It annoyed me that I was feeling this indulgent, and I wondered if it was a product of my quarter-life crisis coming late, or my mid-life crisis coming early. A position had opened up above me at work and I’d failed to get it. Although I told both myself and Jen that I didn’t care, whenever I saw Jason walk down the hallway I thought about accidently pushing him out a window, which probably meant that I did, on some level, care. The suburbs swallowed all this up though. Not because they cared about me, but because they didn’t. Everyone has mediocre unhappinesses in the suburbs, especially ones like this, and my missing out on a promotion was entirely consistent. White pavements and red tiled roofs welcomed my miseries. Children walked home with light bags and heavy footsteps. Sometimes they played in the roads and I slowed down to let them know I wasn’t going to kill them yet. They moved their games or neighbour’s rubbish bins off the streets and didn’t make eye contact, but stared at my car as if memorising my numberplate. If I gave these people their Centrelink money they wouldn’t have treated me with any more respect. It was the kind of place where people go when they need to stop renting but can’t afford to buy. And it was these suburbs that she grew up in, and whether by fate or marketing, it was here that I saw her billboard. The sign had been on the other side, nearer the highway, and I’d thought that I’d just be able to cut through to get there. But no. Everywhere I turned the streets had dinky little names and dead ends, as if to console people that nature reflected life. I spent a few more minutes trying not to admit I was lost and then I turned off the car and got out. The air of her old neighbourhood smelled like a failed barbeque. Not one where the meat had burnt, but one where nobody had come and her parents had fought a little in that silent way they did before her father pulled the sheets out of the cupboard and threw them on the couch as if preparing to wrap it in something fast-burning and set it aflame. But maybe I was looking into it too much.

 

I went walking for a few minutes, to try and get my bearings. I could hear the highway sometimes, when the wind was right, but the streets were thin and weaved their way in totally different directions. I thought about asking someone but decided against it. Wandering more by feeling than by direction, I walked past houses almost perverse in their attempts at originality. While all were built from the same mould, most had tried to trick their way into uniqueness. I walked past a rose garden that reminded me of a cemetery, rock path with a metre-tall sitting Buddha, unseasonal Christmas decorations. I turned down one street that felt familiar, and then another, with a growing sense of recognition. Eventually I came to a house, identical to the others around it. But something in my memory recognised the slant of the roof, the angle of the driveway. I stood there for a while, trying to work out how many times I’d gone to her house in the past, and if this was indeed it. Nobody came out to tell me to go away, but my eyelids felt like rustling curtains. It would be too much to knock and ask, and so I stood there, uncertain. Eventually I tried retracing my steps to the car. I could hear children shouting from a little while away and it occurred to me that it was impossible to tell whether kids’ games were playful or some form of complex warfare. Turning the corner I saw a few of them running, armed with bats. But it was only cricket. They stopped to watch me pass. Some of them were playing with their expensive phones. One held his up in my direction as if to show it off, or take a photo of me. None of them said anything though. I wondered whether they’d become more wary since I was young. I didn’t remember ever having to take adults into account when I played. One of them was wearing a cap and it made me think that maybe you could still be a gangsta, even this young and this deep into suburbia. It was something in his eyes. I made it back to my car, relieved that it was where I’d thought it would be and that it still had its windows intact. There were some missed calls from Jen, but I was going to be home soon enough so I didn’t bother to call her back. On the way out I thought about trying to find the billboard again but I didn’t even know what I was hoping would come of it, and I’d had enough aimless walking for one day.

 

Where have you been?’

‘Just driving around? Why?’

‘Same place you were the other night?’ Jen asked. She managed to sound concerned and angry all at once, and I thought that maybe I should have texted her. But what would I have said? Driving around where a girl I used to date lived. Don’t wait up.

‘Yeah, I drove through. Why?’

And she moved aside so I could look at the television. It was an ad for carpet cleaner. I looked at it, and then her. She didn’t acknowledge me and I tried to think of what could be wrong. I wasn’t too concerned because at least this time there was nothing for her to find out. We sat through long minutes of ads together, her not saying anything, my heart feeling like burnt meat. The news came on. There had been a crash. I couldn’t tell if it was stock market or roadside.

‘What?’ I said finally.

‘Shh. Watch.’ And so I did, taking a seat on the side of the couch, her standing next to me, picking at her nails. Sporting news came on and grown men chased each other around. I tried to make a connection between where I’d been and the news. Alice. Had something happened to Alice? Was she a big enough celebrity to die on television?

‘Has something happened to Alice?’ I asked.

‘No, for god’s sake. Is that all you can think about?’ she looked at me.

‘Well what then?’ I asked. The recap of the night’s news came on. A flood far away. A child lost elsewhere, helicopter shots of red-tile roofs stretching like endless static waves. Then the name of the suburb and the photo of a girl. I didn’t recognise the girl.

‘That was where you were tonight.’

‘Yes?’ And it all fell into place. ‘That happened tonight?’

‘No.’ Jen said, walking into the kitchen and getting a drink. ‘She was reported missing earlier this week.’

‘Okay…’

There was silence for a while. She was standing like she wanted a cigarette but had quit years ago.

‘You don’t think that I…’

‘No, Jesus. No.’ she rubbed her head. ‘I wouldn’t be here if I thought you did. God.’

‘Well,’

‘I’m just worried about you having been noticed, loitering around there or something.’

‘I haven’t been loitering.’

‘I just don’t want the police around here, that’s all.’

‘Oh shit,’ I said, standing up and going over to her so I could tell if she was lying. ‘You’re not still lifting are you?’

‘No! Fucking hell. This isn’t about me. I’m worried for your sake.’

‘Okay, I’m sorry. It’s just…’ But she leant into my arms, which was lucky because I didn’t know how much more I had to say.

‘I don’t know, I just thought. You get obsessive about things, right? I know this, and it’s okay. I was just worried that you might have seen her and she reminded you of your ex and then, I don’t know.’ She started shaking her head, and it could have been the beginning of her crying, but I was too angry to notice. It was late. I’d been stroking her hair. She was resting on my chest, the two of us warm in mutual insomnia.

‘And I would’ve what?’ I said, keeping my voice soft.

‘I don’t know. But it’s like… how people are always saying they never saw it coming? How they couldn’t tell with the ones they love? Hey? What? What’s wrong?’ I’d let her head flop back on the pillow, stood up, was putting my pants on.

‘What are you doing?’ I didn’t answer her. The moon was in the sky. The keys were on the table. The car was in the street.

I had the radio on to stop me thinking, but the only lyric I could hear was returning… like a dog to its vomit. And I didn’t even know if it was a line from a song or my brain. I knew what I was doing was going to cause problems, if not immediately then when I went home. Because I was eventually going to go back. That was the decision I made when I married her. That I would always go back. like a dog to its vomit… The streetlights were a sickly yellow, and my car smelled like two parts sweat and the rest something stale that could have been my own body. I kept patting my pocket so I’d be ready when she called, forgetting that I’d left my mobile at home. Which was fine too, in a way.

The house looked the same in the darkness. It was somewhere near AM, and I kept the car idling, so what? I could pretend I was lost? Just dropping my kid off for his bi-weekly attempt at being a functional family? Excuses percolated through my brain and I wondered if I should get a coffee on the way back. Because I probably should be going back. The few minutes I’d been out here earlier were bad enough. I’d initially intended to go to the park, or a long drive to sit by the beach – something I used to do before I married Jen. Night-long drives were no longer feasible. And nor was this really. She was right, I obsessed over things easily. Imagine if it was Jason who’d kidnapped her. That would blow his promotion. That was a horrible thing to think. Maybe I should leave a note. Or just leave. I took foot off the break and a brick went through my window.

The crash came from behind me.

‘Fuck!’ I screamed, and jammed my foot down, I thought I’d hit something, the car stalled, I looked around but everything was darkness, I turned my lights on, the half-brick sat on my back seat, the lights didn’t make a difference, I looked around, thought I saw someone running, but it could just be shadows, I thought of chasing them, beating them up, grabbing the brick, why a brick? Why my car? How much noise had it made? No one came outside. I restarted the car. Exhaled. Drove slowly. Thought about a trail of sparkling breadcrumbs leaking from my window. It took me a long time to find my way out of the streets. When I hit the freeway, the wind blasted through me. I hoped I wouldn’t be pulled over, but it was too late for police. I wondered if I should report it, but knew I wouldn’t. I drove home, shaken, glass in my veins. When I got in I didn’t tell Jen about the window, and if she noticed when she went to get her car the next day, she didn’t say.

I slept late and didn’t go to work. The promotion was gone, and so was my sense of false-calm that meant I could get through the day. I also couldn’t bear the thought of having to arrive in the carpark and have someone from work see my window. Did Jason get a new car park because of the promotion? I went out to look at the damage again. The whole car looked shabbier from it, the brick still sitting there. I reached through the ex-window, picked it out and threw it into the bushes before remembering about fingerprints. I felt stupid. Why did I want fingerprints when I wasn’t going to the police? But I fished around in the bush anyway, found something that was most likely it, brought it inside to use as an overkill paperweight on our unopened mail. Time passed, I made some soup. There was nothing I wanted to do, and nowhere I wanted to drive. So I just sat home and watched tv. And it was lucky I did, because I saw the early report, and the photo of myself, before anyone else. This gave me some time to start preparing for the storm like sailors used to. Have a long drink. Throw away non-essentials. Cover up. Dive deep.

When Jen got home I thought about telling her, getting her to sit down, warn her about this strange place we’d found ourselves in. But she opened the door and I just didn’t, she put her keys down, and I didn’t, she walked into the kitchen, put her bag down, got a drink, and it was all too late. I should have called her. But I didn’t want to bother her at work. I wondered if she’d noticed the broken window yet, but it didn’t seem like it. The kitchen made noises around her. I was surprised no one had called me first, but maybe no one I knew watched television during the day. Surely Jen’s parents though? Or old friends? But no, I’d spent the day walking around the house being a man who can help with their investigations and no one had called. Maybe they’d already called, but called the police instead? I drank a bit, and after the initial shock hadn’t worn off, I drank a little more. I tried to think if I’d put the bottle away before Jen came home, but I suppose I didn’t matter. There was a time there when I considered calling the police myself. Is that what you were supposed to do if you were on television? Would announcing myself convince them I wasn’t guilty? Because I was sure I wasn’t guilty, just not certain of what it was that I wasn’t guilty of. I didn’t think I could deal with them right now, and so I just waited til Jen was home and then regretted it when she was. We were on thin ice; the drink had melted most of it away.

She came in to our bedroom and looked at me looking at my slippers. I was too young for slippers.

‘Have you been drinking?’

‘A little,’ I said, because honesty is the best policy. She told me that after my second affair, although it was only the first she knew about. She sighed.

‘I was hoping to talk about last night.’

‘What part?’

‘What do you mean “what part”?’ She looked confused and so I shrugged. ‘The whole situation was pretty messed up, and I was hoping we could discuss it, but I can see that you’re not in the right state.’

‘Why not?’ I said, suddenly feeling argumentative. ‘What’s the right state anyway?’

‘One where you’re sober.’

‘I am sober.’ I said, looking at her in hurt confusion.

‘This is pathetic.’ She walked to the door. ‘I’m making myself some dinner, you’re on your own.’ And she closed the door and I was.

I sat in the room watching the wallpaper slowly get darker. Jen started preparing some kind of dinner, and the television bubbled away to itself. I kept trying to listen out for the news report intro music, but I didn’t even know if she was on the right channel. Did cooking shows even have the news? I couldn’t tell the time but I was running out of whiskey. I tried to imagine every scenario, and every response. She saw the news but didn’t see my picture. She saw my picture but didn’t recognise me. She recognised me but thought it must be a trick of the light. I wished everything could be explained away with failed light. I wished I hadn’t gone there again. What was it that drove me to return again to vomit on my dog? Alice. And it was then that my phone started ringing.

I looked at it for a moment, in sheer panic and confusion. My first thought was why won’t it stop ringing? And it was just so loud. I picked it up, dropped it, picked it up and said hello.

‘Hi,’ she said.

‘Hello,’ I repeated.

‘I saw you on tv.’

‘I saw you on a billboard,’ I countered. I was a little drunk. She wouldn’t mind.

‘Did you? Where?’

‘Back where you used to live.’ I tried to remember how to conversation. ‘I went round there the other day.’

‘I know, or at least,’ she inhaled and I remembered she smoked and hated it, ‘I figured you must have. How is it?’

‘Pretty much the same as always. You probably wouldn’t like it.’ She laughed and it made me happy.

‘Yep, that’s what I figured. Why I try not to go.’

‘Visit your parents much?’ I couldn’t remember their names.

‘No.’ she exhaled. ‘They moved from there a while back anyway.’

‘How d’you still have my number?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said, ‘I called to ask-’

‘Come on, did you really keep it all these years?’

‘For God’s sake, no, it was in my diary from back then.’

‘You keep a diary?’

‘Screw you buddy, look it’s been useful, right? Clearly.’

‘Yeah okay, sorry.’ We’d always slipped into a love that was slightly abusive. But I didn’t know if it was still applicable.

‘Anyway, I just called to ask, do you know where she is?’

‘Who?’ I said, already knowing the answer.

‘You know who, the girl, on tv.’

‘No,’ I said, feeling my face go soft, ‘no, I don’t even know what’s going on, I swear to you.’

‘Good, that’s fine.’

‘Good.’

I fumbled around my room for a bit while I waited for the silence to resolve itself. The sky had disappeared. My whiskey was still empty.

‘I still love you,’

‘Well that’s your problem.’ She said. Alice had always been a bitch.

Jen came into the room. She looked at me and I wondered what she saw.

‘Alice just called,’ I said, trying to be honest.

‘Did she leave a message?’ Jen asked.

‘What?’

‘Your phone’s in the lounge room. I had to move it off the stove and away from the remnants of some kind of soup.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘Is everything alright? I know we’ve got some issues to talk about, they’re affecting you more than I thought.’

‘I’m alright,’ I said, ‘just, tried.’

‘When’d she call?’

‘Oh, earlier today.’

‘What did she have to say?’

‘Nothing much.’

‘Right, well I just came to offer you some food.’

‘I’m not feeling very hungry. Thanks though.’ And I reached for her but she was gone.

When she next came in, I knew what had happened. I could hear the forced gravity of the news coming from behind her, the voices of adults talking about a suffering they believed impossible to happen to them. Her eyes were red but I couldn’t tell if she’d been crying or was about to cry. She sat down next to me and we were still. I rubbed my temples, waited. She asked a question, and it was thankfully one I’d had time to work out myself.

‘How’d they get your photo?’

‘I think it was kids, just some of the kids that had been hanging around. I don’t know.’

She nodded.

‘Slightly punk looking? Red cap?’

‘That sounds like one of them, but it could be any kid.’ I was feeling sick. ‘Why?’

‘He was being interviewed. Provided the photo of you.’

‘Huh.’

‘It’s her brother. They’ve all been on the lookout for suspicious people.’ I sat there, feeling suspicious. And sick, something like half-digested bird bones in my gut. She put a hand on my knee and I stood up.

‘What?’ she said.

‘Just gotta go to the bathroom. Feel sick.’

She walked after me and I tried to apologise. I opened the toilet door with my kneecap and capsized onto the floor. I closed my eyes as the vomit hit the water. Jen came in, and I was vaguely conscious of her asking me if I was all right. I said sorry again, sat up and stroked her leg before another wave of nausea came over me. She knelt down and rubbed my back, asked if I needed anything. I was so thankful she was there, said I would be fine in a moment. The bathroom light was yellow. My teeth were glass. Jen, her fingers in my hair said it’s okay, it’s okay. I tried to nod, but I wasn’t sure. We’d weathered storms before, but this one was coming in fast and low. I got down on all fours and vomited again and again.

 

 

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