by Sandy Bennett-Haber
The boxes are packed when she arrives. Pete, ready to go, bounces on the balls of his feet with his hands stuffed into his pockets. Wendy runs a finger along the windowsill and insists they clean the room. He has the good graces to lug the ancient vacuum cleaner up the stairs, and then kneels to fuss with his bootlaces, untying them and adjusting them tighter. She starts vacuuming. Under the cover of the noise he vanishes downstairs.
The cord sticks as she stretches across the room, her yank shudders in the wrong direction, pulling the plug from the wall. She listens for him in the silence and hears nothing. Disturbed dust motes catch the light and she pushes the window up to freshen the air. Outside the window the red brick of the neighbouring building blocks off any hint of a view. It is so close she could reach out and touch it, but from the bed, she remembers you can glimpse the sky.
Down on her hands and knees she checks under the bed for lost sentimental items: finds a hair pin, not hers, a dog eared postcard, a razor blade, a condom wrapper, a cracked golf ball and an advertisement ripped from a brochure. It is furred with dust, but she knows without smoothing it out that it has the words ‘catch flights not feelings’ strung across the picture of an airplane landing in an exotic location. When she first spent nights here it was tucked into the headboard.
Wendy had been quietly pleased when it disappeared, taking it as a sign. She shreds the postcard, foreign postmark and kisses at the end, and the ad, and finishes her cleaning with a satisfying suck of the torn remains.
His life has been distilled down to two boxes and a backpack – all of which he could almost – but not quite carry himself. Pete hauls the pack onto his back, tightens the straps and at her direction they stack the boxes, smaller one on top of larger and juggle them along together. After all, it is not so very far to walk. He leaves his keys on the kitchen bench and is about to shut the door for the last time when she remembers to check if the key to her house, their house, is still on the ring. It is. He extracts it from the bunch and pockets it.
They walk push-me-pull-you style along quiet streets, watching out for each other by pointing out curbs, bikes and low hanging branches. A polite but ungainly four legged four armed creature. Her muscles tingle at the awkward posture and extra weight. She likes being his help-meet but would have liked it better if he let her pay for a taxi. But no. He did not want the expense. She pushes the thought aside. It is moving day. He is moving in with her. She sneaks a look at his profile. Feels her stomach drop and her cheeks flame. He is hers. He is moving in with her. He is ready.
Just past the pub, entering a leafy street Wendy adjusts her grip to move the weight of the boxes, she imagines she is shifting the weight of a baby. A different arm load of love; the dark glint of his eyes looking back at her from a pudgy face. Her handbag slips from her shoulder and she walks on with the strap cutting into her wrist, before the awkwardness forces her to call for a break. They lower the boxes to the footpath and she adjusts the strap then stretches out her arms. Muscles throbbing.
“She blocked her ears on his romanticising of permanent transience, ran a finger along his stubbled jaw, and waited for his self affirming realisation that some lives touch permanently.”
The way he told it his share house was something he had fallen sideways into. He loved his backpackers life – different people from all over the world, all passing through, all pretty broke, all with time on their hands and eyes for fresh sights. All with itchy feet. But then his working visa had come through, he got a job, had a regular income and happened upon a crew in the backpackers who were looking to set up a house. They needed a third. He was their man. They kept the backpackers vibe going for a while, but domesticity slipped in. Benny got all loved up and started going on trips to IKEA, Ross got a better job in a different city, someone else moved in who didn’t quite fit, and the months passed in a blur of work and work again. By the time they met his backpack and passport were crushed at the bottom of the wardrobe and she was more than happy to help him fall into domestic bliss.
Wendy couldn’t remember whose party she was at when they met. She had found herself on the edge of a conversation between two guys she didn’t know. It was late and they were way into a drunken deep and meaningful, littered with ‘that’s it man’ and self realisation jargon to do with how your job won’t make you happy, money won’t make you happy, it has to come from within. The handsome one started telling a story about sitting on a bench in Edinburgh and watching swans in a pond. A small girl dressed in a blue buttoned coat walked along a path with her mother, carrying a golden heart shaped balloon. The girl let go of both her mother’s hand and the balloon at the same time. All four of them, the mother, the girl and the two on the park bench watched the balloon float away, over the pond, the park, the gorse and the houses.
‘It set me free,’ he said that night as he drank down the last of his beer and caught her eye. ‘Lives touch and then they part again. There might be some transference of atoms, but the transience persists.’
Pete was a re-teller of stories. And this particular one made a regular appearance. Each time it changed a little, sometimes the friend sitting by him was a woman with long blond hair, sometimes he was alone, one night in a restaurant after he had finished eating her dinner he held her hand tenderly and tried to explain how the moment of revelation had been a remedy for heartbreak. Once early in the morning just as the light broke through his thin curtains the little girl let go of her mother’s hand, but kept hold of the balloon and floated away with it, higher and higher until only the black soles of her boots were visible. For Wendy the story that had first sparked her interest in him had long since soured. She blocked her ears on his romanticising of permanent transience, ran a finger along his stubbled jaw, and waited for his self affirming realisation that some lives touch permanently.
And now, here he was a man with boxes and her key in his pocket.
They haul up the boxes, except one or both of them move out of synch and the top box starts sliding to the ground. Wendy pushes out her shoulder to nudge it back into place, but Pete lets go of his end with one hand to push the box back into place and the whole edifice upends.
The larger box breaks apart on impact and Wendy launches into practical mode to try and salvage the box.
‘Look see if we turn it this way and maybe switch some of the heavier things into the top box…?’ She expects him to crouch beside her, but he is looking up, away from the archaeology of his belongings strewn on the street. Yesterday she had made space for him in her room, packing away a bridesmaid dress, books, winter coats, old photo albums and a gaudily decorated hat box stuffed with mementos.
Amongst his spilled belongings are newspapers, a shoe, chewed pens, phone chargers, a pack of condoms, playing cards, ticket stubs, and an almost empty bottle of vodka. There are more foreign postmarks, other people’s kisses and a long overdue library book about Asia. As she gathers it up she looks for a relic of his love for her. Everything feels slightly grimy to the touch, like she is still running her hand over his dirty windowsill, only this time her instinct isn’t to clean, but to throw everything in the nearest bin.
The boxes, the great sign of his commitment to her contain not much more than a shot of vodka and a shoe that has walked far enough already. The cover of a book she loaned him has been bent back in the crush, as she pulls it from the debris and smoothes the offended cover, a beaded earring – not hers – falls out. With a flinch she tucks the book into her handbag. Leaving the earring where it fell.
The smaller box starts to bulge out, for a tiny moment she wonders if he has a puppy in there, but as it pushes to breaking point she glimpses gold. The heart shaped balloon pushes its way out, followed eagerly by another in glossy red, their long strings entwining as they rise.
She takes hold of the ribbons and sees a third slightly lumpen heart hanging behind the first two. It hesitates in the corner of the box and Wendy sees at last the love rind she had been searching for, breath caught, she waits to see which path his love for her will take; maybe, maybe, maybe this will be the moment. She thinks of presents, celebrations, births and anniversaries – all the things balloons might mean to someone else. The straggler emerges to join its fellows and she knows at last that this is not what they mean to him. She thinks of taking something sharp to those floating hearts, just as once fleetingly she thought about taking a pin to the condoms in her bedside table. Again, thinks no. Does not want love bought that way; her own epiphany arrives at last and with it the truth in what he said the night of their first meeting, it has to come from within.
Wendy holds the balloons tight while her beautiful, hesitant man checks his boots are laced tight and his backpack is clipped shut. Then he reaches out, not to her anymore but to take his hearts. They both crane their necks to see the balloons taking flight over the debris. There is a flicker of a moment where gravity holds and then the last possibility of him breaks its bounds and he floats up and away after his clutch of hearts.
Sandy is an Edinburgh-based Australian writer working on her first novel in between writing short stories, parenting duties, pandemic lockdowns and cups of coffee.