Pohutukawa

If Elina is uncomfortable with the silence, she doesn’t show it. Her hands remain flatly folded in her lap and her eyes look forward, unblinking.

Paul stands up and walks over to her. He sits next to her. She still does not move or speak. He reaches out his hand and places his palm on hers. He watches as she closes her eyes, then opens them. It is slower than a blink, more like a breath. It is as if she is gathering strength from the momentary darkness.

Finally, she turns to him. She lifts his hand off her own and places it back in his lap.

“I have to go now,” she says. That’s it, five words. She stands.

“No, don’t go,” He says. He is becoming desperate. “Stay, I want to talk to you about this. Please.”

She shakes her head and walks to the door, but she pauses a moment.

Telling her was a bad idea, he knew that. What was it Roger had said—deny till you die? He wished that was what he had done. He wished that was something he could do. But he wasn’t that kind of man. He was missing the steel that ran through their bones. He was soft inside, crumbling cheese. One look from her could unravel him. It had always been that way.

Elina had been waiting at home. He had pictured her—watching TV, taking a bath, padding around the house in that kimono robe she had bought in Japan. Eating cereal on the sofa. Cups of tea outside on warm mornings. Every day he had pictured her wrapped in a domestic scene, a postcard from their life together.

It had taken longer than he had expected, the drive. Sydney to Perth—scooping along the bottom edge of the Great Victorian Desert. The fine red dust had embedded itself in every crack and line in his skin. The car was air-conditioned of course, but every time they opened a door the heat would burst in on them, air blown straight up from hell. God, he hated that country.

Finally, in a little town outside of Perth—though town was a generous word, a gas station, a pub, some houses snaking a single road—he found her.

He had knocked on the door half-hoping she wouldn’t answer. But the door had swung open and there she was, lurking in the darkness. She was younger than had he expected, though she looked ancient-boned. Her skin was thick and loose like she had shrunk in the dry heat. She didn’t smile the whole time he was there. Not that he had stayed long. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes.

That he had looked up his birth mother wasn’t what bothered Elina. She had always expected that he would, someday. It was the secrecy of it that branched through her heart and pulsed poison thick through her veins. He had gone with those deranged friends of his. ‘Boys trip,’ he had said. Flying to Sydney then driving across the desert. Why drive? She didn’t know. But now here he is, wanting her sympathy, wanting her to make it all better like she had when he was small and had a scraped knee.

When he had told her what had happened, only moments ago, she had felt her chest tighten, all the air pressed out. Her breath became thick as if she had swallowed glue.

She stands now in the doorway. She is willing herself to leave. She is being unfair, she knows this. Still, she wants to walk out. Though she doesn’t want to leave, never to leave. Somehow though this is what he thinks, her only son, that she would discard him like a soiled shirt. He is her child—does he not know she would tear off her own skin for him?

She turns and looks him straight in the eye. Her voice is calm and even, though inside is a caldera that she cannot still. It takes every ounce of her strength to say—

“Just for a moment Paul, just for now. I only need a moment.”

She closes her eyes again in that slow not-blink. When she opens them, she has stepped through the doorway and she is outside.

The sun is warm on her skin and the air is light. She will return to that room soon, they have so much more to say. But right now she can smell jasmine blossoms. There is the long scratch-scratch of a cicada strumming. There is salt in the air. The pohutukawa are blooming. Their flowers look like hearts cracked open and strung up.

It is summer. Everything drops away. She can breathe.

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