This is the second extract from Harriet Selina’s heartbreaking debut novel, ‘For Now’
‘Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have of them.’
– Marcel Proust
July 28th 2007:
I spoon my keys off the kitchen table.
He pulls in just as I’m coming down the porch steps. I squint against the sun as he shrugs off his tie. He’s let his hair grow a little longer, it makes him look younger.
‘You just leaving?’
I nod and he brushes his lips over mine.
We seem to keep missing each other one way or another. My chest twinges as I loop my finger through my keys and tug them out my pocket.
I’m halfway to the car when I turn back round.
He stands in the doorway, the familiar angle of his cheekbone catching the light.
I love you. I miss you.
I pause, ‘I’ll see you later.’
‘See you later Eeds.’
‘It’s like just laying out all the facts would be bullshit you know? I listened to the mosque’s call to prayer as the sun came up, trudged for fucking miles through dirty water and human shit to another orange dusty town, shot a dog, shot a man, went a little crazy. Telling you everything, minute by minute, hour by hour, is telling you nothing. Do you understand?’
I nod. The ocean breeze is doing nothing to peel away the air sticking to my skin.
‘And there’s different ways of telling it – I could make it funny, milk it for all the god damn irony its worth or tell it in that sad way that makes women want to look after you and men uncomfortable – both seem like bullshit.’
Today, for the first time, Lewis spoke to me about Ben – really about Ben. We talk as the sun sets, melting behind us and splashing crimson into the sea.
‘We were all like brothers, but with ben and I, for whatever reason, I felt it the most – this really intense need to protect him, keep him alive. He reminded me of this kid I grew up next door to, Paul Tucker. He was a few years younger than me and the other kids gave him a hard time. He was a little different, more in to comics than girls and overly sensitive. Ben was different too, from the rest of us – idealist, optimist, you name it. He always found a way to see the light. He was just-’ Lewis looks out across the water, eyes glazing slightly, ‘he was good.’
‘It destroyed me, when he was killed. He’d have found meaning in his death, I couldn’t.’ He shakes his head, ‘I started wondering what the hell we were all doing. Our friend was dead, it wasn’t a game anymore. ’
I feel my eyes burning and turn away from Lewis to follow his gaze across the ocean. He goes quiet for a minute.
‘You stop being human so you can actually do it and then you come home and you’re human again and the whole thing starts to feel really fucked up. And it makes you want to go back even though you spent the last six months praying to get the fuck out of there. When you’re over there reality becomes this weird hallucinatory thing – you come home and it smacks you in the face.’
Barney pads out through the glass doors and rests his chin on my knee. I scratch behind his ears.
‘Afghanistan felt like another world, so it was kind of a shock when I came back and realised Ben was dead here too.’
He pops open the lid of his beer, ‘does that sound crazy?’
‘No, not at all.’
Sometimes I wonder if there’s a greater me, someone bigger than the girl of that summer or the depressed one who came after, or this woman – was I a woman now? I feel like a woman should know who she is. I rub Barney’s ears and continue-
‘I think we split our world into smaller worlds to keep certain things alive forever.’
I picture the four of us, Gabe, Nick, Rosie and I, wading through that ocean all those years ago beneath the stars.
‘I guess what I really want, is for my readers to know that whatever they’ve been through, whatever they’re going through, they’ll survive. You might be different when you come out the other side, but you will come out.’
I cruise along the main road that cuts through town, I have one of Nis’s cd’s in my car, an old Lauren Hill album.
Everything is everything
What is meant to be, will be
After winter, must come spring
Change, it comes eventually
‘Okay God, universe, whoever’ I mutter softly as I indicate left onto our street, ‘I get it,’ I pull up outside our apartment, ‘what do you want me to do?’
I switch off the engine, and climb out the car, leaning on my door and looking up at the moon as if it’s suddenly gunna morph into a billboard and flash me a sign.
I fling my keys on the table, drop into the chair and start up my laptop.
Tomorrow Elisabetta will get a call saying Ben was killed during a mountain patrol in Nuristan. Three weeks from now she’ll find out she’s pregnant. I sat below that thundery sky and wondered what the hell I was doing there. I couldn’t see the damn moon and Ben was dead – shot under a white sun a hundred yards south of the Kunar basin. And when the air finally broke and the rain came down I remember thinking that maybe it was God crying for me.
Gabe appears in the kitchen.
His hairs damp and dripping onto the floor and his feet are bare.
I push my laptop to one side as he reaches into the fridge.
‘How was work?’
‘It was work.’
He looks at me and I can’t see him anymore, the boy who said you hold my world together, and where’d you wanna go as he pulled up beside me in that old jeep on my walk home from work, I’ll take you anywhere in the world.
‘How did it go with Lewis?’
‘Good.’ I smile, ‘we’re making progress.’
Wherever you go I’ll go.
Sometimes, not very often, we open a bottle of whiskey and listen to Vernon. For a little while pretend to be those people again – like music’s the only place we can still feel each other. The rest of the time there’s this space between us. Even when my skin is on his skin and his tongue is in my mouth it’s there.
I wanna say something but it’s happening again, the unspeakable catching on my tongue.
He’s watching me like he’s trying to figure something out, head tilted slightly to the side.
The rest of the sentence falls away, how do you explain you miss something, someone, that’s right in front of you? I feel an impalpable wall erecting itself in the silence between us. There’s that window again I think, the one where you could say something, like what you really feel, but you don’t. You just stand there looking at each other in silence until the window’s passed and then make coffee or go and have sex as if either of those things will help dissipate the goddamn space.
Is that how it was with him and Rosie? I see her bony arms waving, fiery hair glinting in the light, see his eyes narrowing, growing darker.
‘Yeah, I’m good.’ I lie, letting Rosie slip out the kitchen window into the light.
It’s become so much easier to lie. To keep us in this same space because neither of us want to be the first to move. So we stay still, balanced between two worlds scared to let go.
Gabe shrugs and turns back to the coffeemaker.
His shorts hang low on his hips, I take in the familiar dip across his lower back that I’ve run my hand across a thousand times, the scar on the back of his calf from the exhaust of Nick’s motorbike.
He hands me my coffee.
‘Are you coming up?’ He rubs my shoulder.
‘In a little while, I just want to finish this piece I’m writing.’
‘Okay,’ he presses his lips to my temple and I close my eyes.
I think about Lewis, and Ben, Elisabetta.
We’re told over and over – by poets and philosophers – that life can change in an instant, but I don’t think you really believe it, not until it happens to you. Because it just seems so crazy, that a split second can shatter a whole life, but it does. It did. For Ben, Lewis, Elisabetta, Gabe. Me.
This memoir is Lewis’s story, and Ben’s, but it’s also mine.
I realised that that morning’s world – the one where Ben was alive and irritating the shit out of me with his resolute optimism – was a different world to the one that lay below the moon that night. And I would never see that old world again.