“If I ever forget who you are,” he said, “promise you’ll kill me.”
Lying next to him in his tiny apartment, well-fed, a little bit tipsy and quite a bit love-drunk, Tash snorted laughter through her nose (she felt free enough, comfortable enough around him to let herself make all the weird bodily sounds she’d always been too afraid to let out around previous lovers).
“I’m a smoker,” she grinned at him, propping herself up on one elbow, darkly silhouetted in his double futon, “I’m dying before you are anyway. Emphysema, stroke, lung cancer… that thing with my feet dropping off… you’ve seen the pictures.”
(Just talking about smoking kinda made her want to go have another cigarette, but it was just too comfy in here, beneath Benedict’s doona, naked legs entwined, his hand resting on the smooth curve of her waist, her hand absent-mindedly stroking his own lack of curves – and if she was going to have a cigarette she’d have to stand out there on the balcony in the cold, which would require getting at least partially-dressed, and it all just seemed like too much effort for too little reward, compared to the sensuous effortless glorious paradise of this bed, this man, this lovely lovely experience she was currently having right here and now.)
“You might not,” he said, that half-smile always playing around his lips (lips which were absolutely worth the pash-rash, it had to be said). “You might live forever. You know they say that, right? People who are living right now, they’re going to get nanotech and robot organs and machine hearts and just live forever.”
“God, living forever. How bored would you get?”
(As people in their very early twenties, boredom was kinda their specialty. Although, so far, they’d never been bored with each other. Unbelievably, they’d somehow just kept getting more and more fascinating to each other. Totally unbored. The very polar opposite of bored. It was unprecedented, unexpected, and continuously note-worthy – the number of times one of them (or both of them simultaneously) had shaken their heads with the flabbergasting reality of this total immersive enveloping fathomless nonboring interest in each other must’ve already numbered in the dozens, and they’d only been going out for three weeks now. Three weeks! It had to be some kind of error, some kind of calendar malfunction. Or this was like totally actual capital-L “Love”. They were the only two explanations for it, and Tash knew, in her heart, that there were no such things as calendar malfunctions. But the capital-L option was kinda almost too scary to speak out loud – they were too young etc, they were inexperienced etc, this shit just didn’t actually happen in real life etc. Best not to think about it all too hard, really, and just take it all one skin-tinglingly wonderful moment at a time.)
“I know, right?” Benedict rolled his eyes (eyes that seemed, somehow, to remain supernaturally mesmerising, despite ostensibly being nothing but two gristly purely-functional face-organs filled with jelly). “But it wouldn’t just be boredom. It’d be, everything would change, totally become unfamiliar. All the stuff you grew up with, it’d all be replaced by modern versions that you don’t connect with. Disconnected. All the people who were proper adult grownups when you were a kid, they’d all start dying. And then all your friends and family would start dying. Confusion and fear, loneliness and homesickness. For a time, not a place. Or something.” His gelatinous face-organs glistened in the dimly lit room, and Tash could feel his realness. Her sub-doona hand stroked his flank reassuringly, without any conscious thought on her part, automatic. “Living forever sounds awful, to be honest. Ghastly.”
(She loved how he said “ghastly”, too. It was like, one of those things he said that no-one else said. It was one of the small things that, added together, made his himness different to anyone else’s themness. Like his love of preparing fancy curries from scratch. Like his love of quality kitchenware. Like the way his cock slightly pointed to the left. Like the way he wouldn’t let her smoke inside. Like the way he always asked about her dreams first thing upon awakening. Like how he etc.
God this felt good.)
“The way I’m feeling now,” she said, sensing the small friction of his body hairs against her palm, “it’s like, I could lose everything, the whole world of everything I know, but as long as we were together, it’d all still kinda be exceptional. Like in my mind, I picture an abyss, a black abyss, for some reason lit from above by an almost bluish spotlight, nothing to touch anywhere, and we’re naked, and holding each other, and like floating, or falling, it’s impossible to tell, and there is nothing else in the universe, and everything’s okay as long as we’re holding each other.”
He nodded softly, smiled, touched her, shining eye contact in the darkness. She was so un-self-conscious around Benedict. She didn’t feel like a fraud speaking in poetry, she didn’t feel like she was being judged for her fanciful prose. Being around him was just…
“It’s like you’re my home now – even in like total nothingness, we’re each other’s home.”
Inside her, she felt her blood warm with Love, there was no other way to describe it: warm expanding sensations, the very opposite of anxiety; like she was filled with the colours of a particularly vivid sunrise. Love, or oxytocin; but it was rapturous nonetheless.
“You are totally my home, Benedict.” It felt obvious. She squeezed him, wishing she could sense every centimetre of him at once. (The fact that he insisted on using his ridiculous full name was yet another thing that delighted her no end: add it to the pile.) “And we’ve got another twenty, thirty years before we have to worry about emphysema, stroke, lung cancer, or the foot thing – that shit’s a whole other life-time away. So: home sweet home.”
They held each other. The traffic sounds outside Benedict’s apartment, several floors below, sounded almost like the sea.
“I’m serious though,” he said, pulling away slightly and looking her squarely in the eyes. “If I’m ever that far gone, right, if I ever forget who you are, you’ve got to promise you’ll put me out of my misery.”
That glistening in the eyes again.
“My grandpa,” he said. “He forgot everyone. At the end there he didn’t… he didn’t know his own kids. His wife was a stranger. 60 years together, and he kept asking her… where she was.”
“He’d say to nan, ‘Where’s Ros gone?’, with like this blind panic, and nan would… she’d reassure him and say ‘She’s just gone to the shops, she’ll be back’, and he’d kinda calm down and you could see it was killing her to say it, right, and we’d be like oh shit, this can’t be happening. But it was. And it’s my worst nightmare. That. Worst nightmare.”
Words felt useless to convey the largeness of the emotions, so Tash ran her hand back and forth, back and forth, along his hip beneath the doona. “That’s… awful.”
“It was like he’d already died, like his body had died already, right, like it was already Game Over but he’d glitched the system. He should’ve already been gone. So.” He kissed her. “So please. Tash. Natasha. Solemnly swear.” He lifted his hand off her flank and raised it up above the doona, held it gravely in the air.
Tash, eyes twinkling, did the same.
The two of them pledged, in that dark urban apartment, that if one of them ever got to that unlikely point where they no longer recognised the other, that it really was already Game Over, and that drastic actions would be taken, illegal or no. It was like totally romantic, making solemn pledges and stuff. Even moreso when you knew that it was all deadly serious: this was full on proper grown-up business. They swore, on truths dredged from the very depths of their hearts, forever-binding oaths that no force in the universe could ever break. They both knew. They both knew.
And then their pledging hands came together, touched, their young palms pressed against each other and their fingers deliciously intertwined, and their silent hands made a kind of erotic love; and then, inevitably, the rest of their bodies followed suit.
(And in that black featureless abyss where only the two of them existed, floating or falling, they both were home.)
* * * *
The birth had been hard: there’d been some tearing. Tearing. Which actually sounded worse, the word ‘tearing’, than it had actually felt at the time, the one sensation lost as it had been in the manic sweating whirlwind of general body-horror that birth had turned out to be. Benedict had done everything he could, which had turned out to be very little at all: his support role had been largely symbolic. He’d been there, which, given the biological truths of birthing had been the total maximum of his capabilities, and it had barely helped at all – but he’d been there.
The baby had been born, and was healthy, and impossibly lovely, and heart-breakingly defenceless. The first night that they’d spent with her alone had been an absolute psychedelic trip, halfway between exhausted delirium and religious bliss. They’d looked at each other a thousand times, each time thinking variations on “what just happened?” or “we’re parents now?” or some sweetly-confusing combination of the two.
That was weeks ago now. The pain and confusion had been replaced by fuzzy vague sleepless positivity, with a kind of pleasant level of chaos thrown in amongst the predictable biological cycles of infant life. Healing was taking place. It was though her life was a snow-globe, shaken mightily (and nearly broken) by giant forces outside of herself, but now slowly settling into a new kind of normal.
While Holly slept, so small and earnest and perfect, Tash and Benedict held each other.
They were still around. While so many of their peers had quietly fallen out of love, or explosively broken up, or had soured to the point where they should’ve broken up but weren’t brave enough to actually go there, Tash and Benedict were still strong. Older, less manic and obsessive, but definitely strong. Benedict still looked at her with eyes that delighted in her form and presence, still touched her with hands that expressed comfort and joy. They’d moved from house to house to house during their twenties and early thirties, but they were still each other’s home.
“We’re still here,” Benedict said, one arm around her as they stood at the foot of the bed that held their tiny tiny baby. He kissed her cheek. “My love.”
“We are, huh.” Tash grinned at him. “Just made it.”
“Hey,” he said, “should we get rings or something now?”
He mentioned it, every now and then: getting rings as some kind of commemorative symbol of their union. She suspected that he wanted, on some subconscious level that his conscious mind rejected outright, to actually get married (he totally denied this, arguing that the government had no role to play in their personal love experience etc, and that marriage was an outdated institution etc).
Rings might be nice.
“You want to?”
“I’m, I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t need them, I guess. I mean. We’ve got her, if we’re after, you know, proof of our unity. Still. Maybe.”
Tash reached up and plucked something from his head, near his ear. He made an “ow” noise and recoiled, confused. Tash held it up between her forefinger and thumb.
“White hair!” she kissed him to kind of make up for startling him and causing him scalp-related pain, “Not long now til you’re a silver fox.”
Benedict rubbed his plucked temple and gazed at the pure snowy follicle in her grasp.
“Already?” he sighed.
Tash snuggled up against him and gave him another longer kiss on the lips.
“I’ve always liked older men,” she said grinningly, pinching his arse.
Holly yawned, stretched, and cried for bosom.
* * * *
The school camp was four days long, and, more importantly, four nights long. They’d managed to keep every night free, and had both taken some time off work, and so far, it had been outstanding. They’d been able to talk, just talk, without having to explain every second word to their ever-curious progeny; they’d been able to have long, languid, luxurious sex without needing to muffle their passion or worry about interruption; they’d been able to lie in each other’s arms and properly afterglow, woman and man, like they’d used to so many lifetimes ago. (Lying there, naked and glowing, was the first time Tash had wanted a cigarette since she’d given up a decade ago.)
Eight-year-old Holly was wonderful, of course, of course of course, but she took up so much time, so much constant energy, that often the wonderful thing that was “Tash and Benedict” was left neglected; they only ever got the dregs, whatever crumbs were left after Holly had taken her fill. Which was fine, of course of course, after all, a parent’s priority (Tash often reminded herself) was to her children – that was the contract one signed with one’s soul when one embarked on the journey of parenthood – and she was certainly giving her child a better life than she’d ever had herself as a child, and everything was actually excellent, of course. But fuck, it was nice to just have Benedict to herself again, even if just for a few days. And to be able to fully give herself to him as well, to be honest. It felt amazing, being a twosome again: ravenous, R-rated, unsuitable for children; best friends, knowledgeable lovers, each other’s special someone, entwined. There was more flesh than twenty years ago, sure; there were more folds and wrinkles and parts that slapped together than there used to be, and neither of them had the endurance they’d once had (God, the stamina of youth!), but it was just magical. They were still undeniably still amazing: given half a chance, they made the same love with that capital-L they’d made so long ago. Her skin, stretched and lumpy and kneadable with age still yearned for his touch, and Benedict was still the apple of her eye, no matter how grey and laugh-lined and pot-bellied and thick-thighed and floppy-biceped and hairy in places he had never been before (he was particularly distressed about his burgeoning tufts of nostril-hair). Their love had changed, obviously, over the years, but there was a familiarity, a comfortable knowingness, that made their love even nicer than it had been in those long-ago days of fiery passion and overwhelming hunger. There was still fire, but it was not a blazing explosion anymore; it was a fireplace, something that warmed the whole house, something you could safely toast marshmallows over, something that could dry your socks after you were caught in a sudden downpour with no umbrella.
“Fuck,” she said to him, nestled close against his naked body in their king-sized bed, resting her head on his chest, “I love you.”
Benedict, sweating from their recent exertions, kissed her forehead, and squeezed her soft middle-aged nakedness against him.
“Natasha,” he said, “there is nothing in this world that I love more.” He shifted slightly. “Obviously I, well, Holly is a whole different thing, I mean, of course I love her too, but not like, it’s like I have to love her, she’s a subset, she’s part of us-”
“Shhhhh,” Tash said, smiling. “You don’t have to explain, I get it.”
“But you,” he said, looking down at her, “are what makes me me.”
“And you,” she said, looking up at him, “need to trim your nose-hairs again.”
* * * *
The truck had almost not been big enough, but, after Tash and Holly had brainstormed some ingenious rope-based solutions (hanging several items from the inside of the truck’s ceiling, things that didn’t normally hang in a standard domestic environment), all of Holly’s stuff had managed to fit just about perfectly. The unloading had seemed to take about half the time the loading had taken, and, after a celebratory drink (Holly seemed to favour the same kind of micro-brewery artisanal beers that her father was fond of), and a brief tour around the house (a little bit decrepit, way too expensive, with some major plastering problems and a laundry that seemed to be on a slight angle – all in all, a perfectly serviceable share-house), the vibe had very much been one of “okay, thanks mum, time for you to be going now”, and so she’d left.
Driving the truck home (she’d return it tomorrow), she’d cried. Not really with sadness, as such: it was a feeling that was half sadness, but half happiness, and altogether something else entirely. As she wiped her eyes behind the wheel of that large vehicle, it felt like a totally new emotion she’d never felt before, something nameless and ancient, something to do with loss and with inevitability, something not quite about mortality, nor quite about the smallness of all human activity in the face of an impossibly old and uncaring universe, but something parallel with those kind of feelings. She had visions of a mother bird watching her young from a now-empty nest, progeny who had once been blind and featherless, but now possessed wings strong enough to stay afloat on nothing but air. It felt at the same time overwhelming and essential, both too big and too soon, a bone-deep feeling of something vaguely terrible but absolutely necessary. She guessed it was what all parents feel when their children are children no more; a mixture of successful pride and profound worry. She sniffed back her tears and chucked the vehicle into third.
When she got home, Benedict was there to cry on. He greeted her with wine and some kind of curry (he’d made it himself, so it was regionally-authentic). He did all the right things, patted her with the required levels of sympathy, nodded when he needed to nod, shook his head when he needed to shake. He held her and loved her and filled her empty house with conversation until she told him, gently, to stop. And when she said she just wanted to sit in the silence that their house suddenly seemed to be filled with, he acquiesced with a caring smile.
As Benedict busied himself with small miscellaneous domestic chores in other parts of the house, quiet and studious, Tash smiled sadly to herself, heart brimming with too many conflicting emotions for one organ, and felt that black lightless abyss, slightly bluelit from above, and could feel Benedict’s imaginary naked embrace in her own, and could feel them falling, or floating, together in that featureless vista, home, home, home, and the emptiness of her physical house felt almost as vast as this imagined landscape, and it was all too enormous, and she got up and searched the vast empty house and found him (re-arranging the bookshelf by genre), and clutched him like in her mental abyss, and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
And Benedict did nothing, needed to do nothing, but be there. And there he was.
* * * *
And inevitably, it started. It started small. Forgotten names, dates, numbers. Stuttering, where he never used to stutter.
It crept up on them so slowly, it took Holly to really notice it. She was visiting for one of their bi-monthly curry dinners, when she laughed and reached into her bag.
“Dad,” she said, pulling the unexpected carrots from her handbag and waving them like wet evidence, “you’re totally going senile. God knows what you put in the rendang.”
With Holly there, they’d all laughed. But that night Benedict had clutched Tash to him like he was afraid she’d vanish, and his eyes were moist and his voice was cracked.
“Our… agree-m-m-m-ment. Your promise.” he croaked quietly, “I still m-m-mean it.”
“Oh babe,” she said, kissing his grey hair and giving him an extra squeeze. “You’re fine. I won’t be doing you in for a long time yet.” She chuckled warmly, but the laugh never touched him. It tripped right past him, slipped over his darkness like oil.
The eyes that looked up at her were a frightened animal’s; wide, wild, uncertain.
“I’m getting lost, Tash,” he spoke so quietly, frail, like the words were afraid to come out. “I’m-m-m-m-m getting so lost.”
“You’re home, you’re home,” she whispered to him, rocking his fears to sleep, her own eyes brimming, “you’re home.”
* * * *
And of course it got worse.
Worse. Worse. Worse.
* * * *
Benedict was in bed. She could hear his snores, thick, raspy.
The old woman in the bathroom mirror twisted her ring around and around and around on her finger – uninscribed, plain gold, smooth. Now and then the woman in the reflection would morph, bulging and liquefying, and Tash would have to wipe her eyes. Red eyes, darkly pouched. Staring not at her reflection but deep inside it. Trying to see the goodness inside this old lady, trying to find the pledge buried at her heart.
The old woman rotated the steel band like a rosary.
She’d googled ways to do it. He was so bad now. She’d googled all the options, all the options in the world. She was going to do it tonight. It was raining. It was only going to get worse. She should’ve just poisoned him. She should’ve ordered some of that potassium cyanide. The rain spitting on the roof, hissing on the black roads as cars drove past the house. He wanted to stay at home, even though he didn’t recognise the place as home. A house. He knew he lived there, that’s all he knew. The look in his eye. Hunted animal. Can you even get a gun in Australia? There was no moving him to a nursing home, like Holly wanted. This was his home. The potassium cyanide would work, she could’ve pretended to be a jeweller to order it, like the website recommended. It was too late now. A pledge. Cars driving past outside, oblivious. Hissing in the rain. The look in his eyes. He was lost. Holly had gotten angry at him, yelled at him to recognise her. Pleaded, angry begging. He seemed smaller. A gun wouldn’t help. Her hands were shaking so much, her aim would be lousy. Holly had stormed out. He was so small, birdlike. All the options in the world; there were no options. Cars outside, like ghosts. A promise. An old woman crying in the mirror.
Old, but strong. Tash breathed, steeled herself, trying to centre herself around her breaths, each breath like an anchor. Tonight. Tonight.
With fists clenched, she wiped her eyes and switched off the bathroom light. She walked to the kitchen.
She’d read online about people who’d done it. Over and over she’d read them. The stories were all bookmarked. The phrases spoke to her, whispered words straight to her subconscious, private, her conscious mind scared of eavesdropping. They were real, and true, and read, verbatim:
“[name withheld] sat quietly sobbing in the dock as the details of the tragic mercy killing in Nuneaton were outlined of how he plunged a kitchen knife into her chest in a 'moment of impulse’.”
“ ‘‘She was screaming and said she did not want live like this. I went to the kitchen and got a knife and stabbed her. I kissed her and said I love you.’" ”
“[name withheld], 81, smothered his disabled partner [name withheld] with a pillow at their home in Armadale in January. He then killed his two dogs and inflicted severe burns on his hands when he tried to electrocute himself.”
“A 78-year-old man has been handed a two-year suspended sentence after admitting to killing his sick wife after she asked him to ‘bring her suffering to an end’.”
“[name withheld] then got his revolver and wrapped a towel around it so the bullet wouldn't go into the kitchen.”
“ "She says, 'Is this going to hurt?' and I said, 'You won't feel a thing,'" he said.”
She reached the wooden knife-block. Carefully oiled: Benedict hated blunt knives with a passion. At least, he’d used to – he didn’t seem to hate anything anymore. Oh for just a little hate! Anything but this… this emptiness, this empty-eyed withering.
She pulled out the longest, heaviest knife. It gleamed in the dim light, the rain creating white noise to match her mood. Everything all at once. Chaos.
Her chest drummed, and she felt weak. She looked at the knife, weighty in her hand.
She walked to the bedroom.
Benedict was there, asleep in the lamplight, old mouth opened, fishlike, sleeping loudly in the yellow-white.
She raised the knife. Thick. Heavy. So solid. She drew her arm back, up.
She closed her eyes once. In the complete darkness, it was all weight, the precise texture of the handle in her hand, everything took up space.
She couldn’t do this. The blood. The images of arterial spurting, of redness everywhere, his redness – her breath gasped from her body and she put the knife down on her bedside table, her hand quickly coming up to cover her eyes. Wracked. She couldn’t do this.
She had to do this.
With silent precision, the old woman picked up her own pillow. It felt weightless. Her heart burst again and again inside her flimsy chest, banging hard, banging so loud, as though to wake him, to warn him. Scared her own ragged breath and pounding heart would awaken him, the old woman clenched and held the pillow over her wonderful lover’s old man face. She pressed hard.
Immediately the man sprang to life. In panic, he thrashed, tried to sit up. Tash pushed the pillow down harder, moving her body so that she was on top of him now, stopping him getting up. She shuffled up his body, wedging his arms beneath her knees, pressing down on his face with all her strength. Her breath erupted from her mouth in harsh gulps, as beneath her, he struggled. One of his desperate arms slipped out from beneath her weight: he immediately used it to press upwards, the pillow prising up off his face, allowing him prolonging lungfuls of air. She used her elbows, forcing the pillow down again, all the strength she could muster. But the panicked animal that Benedict had become was pumped full of flight-or-fight, and wrenched the pillow away from her. The contorted face of the old man was all eyes, and shock, and horror.
“What are you d-d-d-doing?” he barked, unbelieving. “What’s happening? Who the f-f-f-fuck are you? What are you doing?”
And Tash realised that she was murdering a stranger.
She was murdering a stranger, who had no idea why. This terrified old man didn’t know anything about any solemn pledge, had no idea who she was or why she was killing him. No pledge had been made to this man, who happened to share Benedict’s hull. The man she had promised to kill had died already.
Tash hugged him, clutched him and sobbed, for both of them. He tried to fight her off, initially, but eventually, he hugged her too, whoever she was.
* * * *
Whoever she was, she seemed kind. Whoever she was, she seemed to care for him. Whoever she was, she treated him well, over those next few years.
Whoever she was, something about her made his heart leap; something about her face made him feel warm; something about her touch made him feel safe; and when she hugged him and he closed his eyes, he could see an abyss, a blueish black abyss, and they were young and naked and formless, and holding each other, and floating, and falling, and there was nothing else in the universe.
Whoever she was, she was his home.