Wet Towards the Waterfall by Laura McPhee-Browne
Wet Towards the Waterfall
for Silvina Ocampo
We fell in love quickly, he and I. That was certainly my way, to dive in without testing the water with my toes, to sweep up the consequences, later murmuring, “well at least I lived”. For him I could sense that it was an abnormality; that he was in above his head, that he was used to taking months where we were taking hours. But there was never a question of stalling, of taking our time. We were mad, and it was a river washing over us, dragging us wet towards the waterfall.
We started looking for a house to live in within days. I was unhappy in my large, grimy share house and he was essentially homeless—spending his nights on his studio couch or at friends’ houses in attics or spare rooms trying not to snore. It suited us both to move in together. The first place we looked at, on Jaggery Lane, was perfect. We thought it was perfect anyway, and danced in the kitchen holding our hips in when the real estate agent left to answer her phone. It had natural light and a double bed on stilts, and was small like our sighs as they echoed in the night time.
It was only after we had moved in that I wondered who he was. I knew his name was Badi, and that Badi meant wonderful, marvellous, brave. I knew that he had skin the colour of my grandmother’s hessian couch, and that when I kissed it I could taste what I imagined to be a clean and hairless animal. I knew that he loved to paint, or that he wanted to love to paint, and that he spent most of his time looking at big books full of sad paintings of naked men and trees. I knew he slept sideways, diagonally across whatever bed we shared, and that he liked me to wrap myself around the parts of him that were immovable. I knew that he was tangible, and that around him I was seen. But I started to have dreams that he was reaching towards me with a small knife, planning to slice at my throat while I was sleeping.
I couldn’t tell Badi that my subconscious believed he was trying to harm me. I had started to feel in my belly that he was superstitious; in the way he stacked the dishes upside down and locked the door and opened it six times each day before he left the house. He told me too, on our seventh morning in our new home, that he was scared of most things and dubious of everything, and that I was the first thing he had ever touched that hadn’t deceived him.
I asked myself in bed, feeling the rhythm of his breath in my throat—how did we meet? I couldn’t quite remember. He told me when I asked that we had walked past each other and locked eyes, but I knew that I looked at the ground when I walked, to avoid destroying those tiny sprouts of grass that sometimes grew. He didn’t seem to care why I wondered, didn’t question why I couldn’t remember how it had begun. This made me scared, made me keep my eyes half awake even as I fell down the well into dreams, and I saw his hand holding a butter knife just above me over and over, though I knew it was only for protection.
In our seventh week together, our sixth week of living together and eating toast together and wiping the toothpaste from the edges of our mouths together with soft towels, we received a letter in the mail. Well I received it, for I had taken some time off from work to make sure I could sleep. The letter was enclosed in a small, cream-coloured envelope and written on crêpe paper with a pencil. It read,
To Veronica (for Veronica is my name),
Don’t you know that Badi without the I is just Bad?
Someone who knows the consequences of seeping fear
After I read it, I left the letter on the kitchen table and went to the bathroom to sit on the toilet a while, with the lid down, feeling the cool plastic against the backs of my thighs. Who had sent me this letter? Who knew Badi better than me? What seeping fear did they refer to? I imagined it was Badi’s fear of everything: his terror at being watched when he was in public, his insistence that we check the gas stove and the iron over and over before leaving the house, the jumping at noises in bed at night that shook the very mattress. I felt a little sick in my stomach to know that someone was watching us, that our little life might be someone else’s game.
I began to have Badi followed. His routine was simple; get up hours after I had left, leave the house for his studio, leave the studio sometime later for home. All this told me was that he was ripe with boredom, for the detective followed my advice and watched him through a studio window one day, only to find that he lay on the couch in the corner for eight hours, not even flicking through a magazine or opening his eyes occasionally. Knowing that Badi was bored, was uninspired, did not quell my love for him. If anything, it made it grow fatter inside of me, for now I knew how much I was needed. But I was still scared, and every night would dream that Badi was somewhere in the room apart from beside me, often above me with a weapon. He always tried to kill me in my dreams.
One day I was at home from work, languishing in the bedroom, when the doorbell rang. I had never heard the doorbell. We never had visitors, and neither Badi or I had ever forgotten our key. I wondered who was out there, who would want to speak to me at such an hour, at any hour for that matter. It felt ominous, as everything did at that time. I pulled on my dressing gown (the need to impress or pretend that I was coping had left me) and answered the door, quickly, before I lost my nerve. Standing there on the nature strip was a young woman, a woman about the same age as I was at that time. She was beautiful but weary, with dark circles under her eyes and hair that had not known a brush in weeks. I was annoyed: she was too beautiful and too wan to be anything good, and I wanted her to go away.
I asked her what she wanted.
She continued to stand on the nature strip, staring straight ahead, not at me but through me, into the dwelling I shared with Badi.
“What do you want?” I heard my voice break on the end of the last word, as if I didn’t know myself what it was. This woman made me feel silly, I could already tell. I wished so strongly for her to leave that I could feel my fingernails breaking against the skin of my palms where they were wrapped up against them, my hands in fists ready to fight.
“Did you get my letter?”
The woman was looking at me now, not just to the side of me. Her eyes were a deep black-brown. I never usually noticed the colour of eyes but hers demanded attention.
“Yes,” I answered, wanting to ask her why she had sent it and what she had meant by it but stopping myself. I did not want her to know that she had scared me, for that had clearly been her aim.
She kept watching me, and lifted a hand to play slowly with the end of a piece of her dark, knotted hair. I wanted to pull at it, to break it off and stomp on it and make her disappear. Who was this woman to Badi? Why had he never told me about her?
“I meant what I wrote. You must listen to me. He is dangerous.”
“What do you mean?” I would not let her know that I was scared. Badi was the only thing I had.
“Badi! I know him. I know him better than you do and I want to warn you. I tried to warn you with the letter but I can see that you did not listen, that you are still living with him here in this tiny place where he can easily get you. I am telling you to leave, from one woman to another!”
Each word she spoke was faster and more urgent than the word before, so that at the end of this speech she was talking so quickly and so loudly that I was overwhelmed, and had to place my hand on the edge of the doorway to steady myself.
“I don’t want your letters, your warnings!” I stood back and saw the young woman’s face become sadness as I pulled the door shut upon her. I would try to smudge this finteraction in my memory; the letter too, and its insinuations. I could not be alone again. I needed Badi.
That night he did not come home. I waited in the softest armchair in the kitchen, pulling at threads on its arm until one whole elbow unravelled. I wasn’t hungry, but I strained some white beans in a colander and poured vinegar all over them, eating them one by one at the sink and letting the acetic acid bite the inside of my mouth. Badi did not have a phone; he did not like the idea of people tracking his calls and had no money to pay for a bill. I couldn’t call him, and I couldn’t leave the house to check his studio because I was scared and tired and unsure I could have him anymore. The young woman had been so beautiful, and so wild in a way I could never let myself be. I knew that he must still be in love with her, perhaps violently. I imagined them making love against the ladder going up to our bed in our little terrace house and I couldn’t banish the picture of their rubbing flesh from my mind.
At an hour past when I should have been sleeping, the doorbell rang again. It was a well known tune, and I hummed it as I walked towards the front door, feeling as if I might be floating, or that the floor had sunk and I had not descended with it. When I opened the door I saw standing there the young woman again, but this time she was crying, and in her hand was a leash that lead down to a small, black, topsy-turvy sort of a dog, with a thick pink tongue hanging from its mouth.
“Here, you take it then!” She yelled at me, thrusting the leash in my direction and turning to walk away down Jaggery Lane. I was utterly confused, and repelled by the small dog’s excitement.
“Wait!” I yelled back at her. She did not stop or look back. “Whose dog is this? I don’t want this dog!”
She turned around then; the terribly pretty woman with the hair like forest after fire.
Before I could reply, before I could even understand what she had said, she had turned back and started running, away from me down the narrow pavement towards the heated traffic of the main road that forked Jaggery Lane. Even the way she ran was beautiful, I remember thinking on the doorstep, with the black night air against my cheeks.
The dog was his. I believed her, despite Badi never mentioning a dog, or any other animal, or professing to owning anything at all since we had met. The idea of him was coming apart much quicker than I could believe. At least the beginning of his hands and his feet in my mind were fraying threads. The dog was whining and wagging and licking at my slippered feet and I wanted to drop the lead and leave it there on the concrete and not bother with its shaggy body, but I couldn’t do that. We went back inside the little terrace house together and I sat on the couch and the dog sat near my feet and looked up at me, so much hair in its eyes I could barely tell if they were trusting. I was tired, despite the excitement, and my eyes drooped as the dog panted and wagged and circled its body around the tiny living space filled with Badi’s scribbles on scraps of paper and my grubby bras and lipstick cups rusted with Milo. I let myself fall into sleep, and patted my lap for the little dog to join me.
The next morning was bright with sun and smelt of the little dog’s saliva. I woke with a start on the couch and saw that Badi had returned; I knew because he had left his boots near the door of the room and his jacket on the floor beside them. He must have seen me lying there and not woken me, even though he had been so late home. The thought was loneliness in my pelvis and stomach and groin, and a slickness in my throat.
I got up slowly; the little dog was still sleeping in a puddle on the floor at my feet and I did not wish to wake it. Fondness circled my heart for the creature, particularly now that Badi had begun to move out of my chest. I could hear movement coming from the kitchen and could smell bad vegetables, or lentils cooked too long, mixed with something young and sweet. Badi often prepared strange meals at odd hours, and I hoped he was not too busy chopping up a root or grinding inexplicable things into a paste to sit down and talk to me.
What to say? How to ask whether he was deceitful? Would a smile or a frown or a perfectly blank expression be the right way to approach him, this new version of Badi I was trying to understand? I gathered myself—,patting the dog hairs off my thighs and smoothing down my hair.
When I walked into the kitchen he had his back to me, and I did not think he knew yet that I was there. His back moved just slightly as he washed something in the sink, his shoulder blades flying like the wings of a slow bird. Anger shot out inside my torso as if sperm, or bile, and I wished him peace no more.
He turned, slower than I wanted him to, and I could see that he was washing strawberries, though it wasn’t summer and he had never eaten them in my presence before.
“Darling,” he answered me, his eyes softening as he took in my rumpled body and my creased face.; as if he had not been out all night, as if he did not own a dog and had not had a girlfriend I had known nothing about. As if he was still mine.
“Where have you been Badi? Where have you been!”
My hands were shaking now, and I wanted to tell him what had happened and to sit down on the couch with him and cry, to have him kiss my head. I wished he was not the enemy now, as crossed lovers often do, but I could not pretend the wild beautiful woman and the little dog were not real.
“I told you darling. I stayed at the studio last night. To work on an idea that needs space and time.”
It was true that Badi needed space and time when he had an idea; something that had not happened since we had known each other but that he had told me about, and that I now remembered. But I did not remember him telling me that he would be gone, and I had the little dog to prove his lies.
“No you didn’t Badi! I waited hours last night for you.”
“Oh my darling,” he answered, and I could not look now at his eyes, for they were soft and warm and etched like always. All the words I had imagined saying to him and the hair of the wild young woman and the smell of the dog’s small body were swishing around in my head and down my neck into my chest and I couldn’t get them to stop. I held on to the top rung of a kitchen chair and felt almost dizzy.
“And a woman came to the door and gave me your dog. She wrote me a letter first, warning me about you! Then she came and gave me your dog, she didn’t explain it but it’s yours! It’s your dog, Badi! And she was your woman, too!”
I stopped myself there and took a breath, waiting for Badi to be angry, or shocked, or to feign confusion. My chest was heaving, and the dizziness lingered behind my cheeks. Badi stood there, the strawberries still in his dripping hands, and I could smell them and their fleshy sweetness. A pot bubbled on the stove but the strawberries were what I could smell and it occurred to me that he must have been bruising them slightly with his hands, so that the smell could really come out. He was shaking his head, and his brow was pushing his eyes almost closed. Then he spoke.
“What woman is this? I have no dog, no other woman. Darling, you must be mistaken.”
I turned and opened the door to the living room, calling out for the little dog.
“Pup! Pup! Little pup! Come in here!”
The little dog did not come.
I walked away from Badi into the living room but the little dog was not anywhere I could see. It must have got out somehow, into the hallway and perhaps into our bedroom, where it was probably snuggled up on the bed right now, its black hairs sticking to the unripe apricot-coloured blanket.
In the bedroom I could not find the little dog, or in the bathroom, the toilet or the sunroom the size of a tall coffin at the back. I could not understand it, and my head was starting to thump. Badi followed me around the house, as gently as a sparrow below a table covered with crumbs. I turned around in the sun room, empty of sun and colder than it had ever been before and saw that he was crying.
“It was here. She brought it here. I am not lying.”
As we stood together in the little death room I started to shiver, and Badi came towards me with his wet face and wrapped his brown arms around my body.
“There’s no woman. No dog. You’re ill,” he said, his pupils big and black and fearful. He moved his hands to my shoulders to hold me still. I felt ill, now, all of a sudden. As if I needed to lie in bed for days, with a strange version of the flu.
“It’s okay,” Badi told me. “You’ll be okay.”
I could see the young woman with her wild snake hair behind my eyes. She might never go away, but I was safe, for now, and the little dog was safe too—no longer with her or me, but somewhere beyond us both. I didn’t have many options, I had always known that. But I still had Badi. Now he reminded me with his hot breath on my neck, his warm hands closing along my spine.