ReadingRoom

Short story: The Hurt You Know, by Eileen Merriman

"She sets the torch on the rocks behind them, and tugs her dress over her head": a fertility story by Auckland writer Eileen Merriman

Three down. Bitter and abusive.

Lola glances at Axel. He's looking straight ahead, hands easy on the steering wheel. A trace of stubble lines his jaw, flecks of gold in his calico hair. Behind his left ear, she knows, is a freckle shaped like a half moon.

"Bitter and abusive," she says.

Axel indicates right, and swings out to overtake a tractor. "How many letters?"

"Twelve." Lola purses her lips. "First letter v, fifth letter p."

"Bitter and abusive," Axel muses, his eyes flicking towards her. It was his eyes that she'd noticed first, the colour of blue gin and glaciers and antipodean skies. "Vituperative."

Lola pens in the letters. "Vi-tup-er-a-tive. Hey. You're right." 

"Of course," he murmurs, and she feels a familiar prickle of irritation. Was it a vituperative outburst she'd had, three weeks ago? Had or delivered? Both perhaps. But then he says, "There she goes," a lift in his voice, and she looks forward too, at the pitch and churn of the ocean. Feeling the force that brought them together, before they whirled apart.

*

They unpack in the usual order, chilled goods into the fridge, suitcases tossed on the bed. Listening to the sounds peculiar to the beach house — the drum and drag of the sea, the wind fingering the fly screen (rain, Axel had said a couple of years ago, as she lay with her legs elevated on a pillow after sex, it sounds like rain). But it doesn't really sound like rain, because when it does rain, she imagines the ocean as a billowing tarpaulin, and the raindrops as nails on the tin roof.

No rain today, though. Thin clouds stretch over a steel-blue sky. The tide is going out, and a crowd is gathering on the sand, holding spades. Hot Water Beach, a tourist mecca. She doesn't remember it being this busy when she was a child.

"Better get a spot before it's too late," Lola says, and turns to see that Axel is in his boardies already, a towel slung over his shoulder.

"Surf's up," he says, gesturing towards his first love. His first love roars back.

She rolls her eyes. "Digging by myself, am I?"

"I"ll dig, don't worry."

When Lola walks outside in her bikini, a towel wrapped around her, Axel is waiting with his surfboard and a pair of spades. She takes a spade and they stroll along the grassy verge. Tar bubbles on the road, heat shimmering like a migraine aura.

"Did you apply for your visa waiver?" Axel asks.

"Not yet. Plenty of time."

"Two weeks."

"Like I said, plenty of time." And look, we're bickering already. She wants to take his hand, defuse him, but he's got his board under one arm and the spade in the other. She settles for a hand in the small of his back. "I thought we weren't talking about this."

"OK, we're not talking about this." A quick smile, but his eyes are flat.

Lola bumps her spade through the grass. "Fish and chips for dinner?"

"With beer," Axel says, his forehead smoothing out.

"Beer, sure." Gone are the endless months where they barely drank any alcohol and dropped their caffeine intake to the minimum; the endless months where she counted the days since her last period, and measured her temperature before getting out of bed each morning. Misery is a solitary line on a urine dipstick.

"Best spot's over here," she says, walking towards the rocks. The beach house belongs to her uncle, although he's been talking about selling it, now her aunt is dead and his Parkinson's is advancing.

They dig in silence until they have a pool big enough for the two of them to recline in. From the nearby tourists, she hears at least four different languages — German, Chinese, Italian, French.

"I forgot how nice this was," Axel murmurs once they are ensconced in their own thermal spring, the steam rising around them.

"I never do." They sit in silence for a couple of minutes, watching the surf. Lola remembers digging at midnight, when she'd first bought Axel here three years ago. After stripping naked, they'd warmed up in the thermal springs before running into the sea, a cold slap on their steaming skin. Then back to the hot springs, Axel's body slipping over hers like a seal. I haven't taken my pill for a week, she'd said. Let's make a baby, then, he'd replied.

She'd truly thought they were making a baby, that night, one conceived in the briny, sulphurous broth.

They never did.

*

It's a curious beauty that Lola has. He's never changed his mind about that, though at times he's so angry with her that he thinks he should just walk out. Walk out on her, before she walks out on him. But he can't let her go any sooner, not even now.

The hurt you know.

Her skin is latte to his vanilla, her mind an ever-expanding universe. He's pissed at her, and in love with her, and she knows it.

She'd said he was paralysing his sperm with alcohol, but the gynaecologist said there was nothing wrong with Axel's swimmers. Axel gave up the booze for her anyway, because she wanted a baby so much. Sex whenever she said they should, even when it turned into a chore. The gynaecologist said there was no reason why IVF shouldn't work, but there were no guarantees.

Yeah, no sodding guarantees.

He doesn't want to think about that now. They're sitting with their thighs touching, and he's tracing a spiral on her knee. Paradoxically, he feels closer to her now than ever, maybe because it's all out in the open. Every ugly detail, their relationship turned inside out, exposed like fish guts.

Three weeks ago, she'd told him, and he'd told her.

No going back.

*

Lola kicks through the shallows, watching Axel duck-dive beneath the breakers, into the impact zone and beyond. She counts five, six, seven other surfers lining up for the foaming barrels. Yet again, she wishes she could be as passionate about something, anything, as Axel is about surfing.

Trying to have a baby isn't a passion, more like one of the mathematical proofs she demonstrates to her undergraduates. Infertility = insanity. Perhaps Oxford will give her what she needs, launching her into the academic impact zone and beyond.

You're crazy, Axel had said when she'd told him three weeks ago. I don't know why you applied. You know I'd never live there.

I do know, she'd answered. And he'd given her a look, such a wounded look, so she'd told him the rest of it. That was when he'd said, me too. I slipped up too. But it means nothing.

Nothing? How can it mean nothing?

Because, he'd said, you are everything.

No, she said. We can't go back.

*

Ten across: The action of being unfaithful to a spouse or other sexual partner (noun).

Infidelity. ɪnfɪˈdɛlɪti

Axel had known, as soon as he'd caught her eye, how it would end up. Lacey Snow was twenty-one years old and one month away from her final exams. He'd taken his English tutorial group out for a last drink. Lacey and Axel sat next to each other, thighs pressing together beneath the table. After the group dispersed, Axel and Lacey had exited in opposite directions, but looped back to each other.

Just so you know, I've got a boyfriend, she'd said.

And I'm married, he'd said. Just so you know.

They'd had oral sex in his car, penetrative sex in her flat. Lacey didn't tell him she was ovulating. She didn't tell him to stay inside her for ten minutes, as if that made a difference.

He'd looked it up. It didn't make a fucking difference.

And oh God, he'd forgotten what spontaneous sex was like. Her skin was ripe and swollen, her tongue a wild animal in his mouth. When it was over, he felt empty, scooped out. Tying a knot in the used condom, he'd thought, what if one of those sperm was the one?

You can come again, she'd said, and gave him her phone number.

He never did.

*

Now's he caught inside, fighting to get out of the break zone, but every time he comes up to take a breath another Lola-wave breaks over his head.

I've got a job at Oxford.

I don't want to try for a baby anymore. It's tearing me apart.

I slept with Simon. Yes, that Simon.

Foam in his eyes and rocks in his chest.

*

"Are they good?"

"Very good." Lola licks her fingers, one by one.

Axel picks up a chip. "Nothing like fish'n'chips and a Corona."

"Nothing like," Lola agrees, sticking her tongue into the neck of her beer bottle. Cicadas whirr around them. From the balcony, they can see a lone surfer below, pivoting across a wave. The bay is a charcoal drawing, shades of graphite. Even Axel's eyes are grey in the deepening dusk.

"Perfect, even," he says. "A perfect day. Don't you think?"

Lola takes a cautious sip. "Sure." She doesn't want to ruin this day, this moment. Best not to think about what comes next. So she doesn"t object when he loosens the beer from her clasp, doesn't pull away when he draws her onto his lap. His lips are beer-cold; his mouth salty and warm. She turns to straddle him, a noise escaping when he pushes his fingers inside her.

"Lola, Lola," he whispers in her ear, the way he always does.

"Not out here," she whispers back. They slip inside, sandy limbs tangling on the rug. The ocean is booming, and the cicadas are chanting, and she feels as if she and Axel are merging together, running like wax. A month since they had sex, but she can't remember the last time it was like this.

"Don't go," he says later. They're lying in bed, the asphalt night pressing into their eyes, surrounded by the mingled scents of beer and salt and sex.

Lola's heart pitches in her chest. "You could come with me," she says. "To Oxford."

Axel turns away, and she feels the absence of his skin against hers, like an amputation.

"That's not what I'm asking for," he says. "You're not listening." The mattress rises as he stands up, and she sees his shadowy figure moving towards the door.

"Stay," she says.

"Don't go," he repeats. The door slams behind him. Lola rolls onto her side, and brings her knees up to her chest. Foetal flex, salt on her cheeks and in her mouth.

*

Two across: inability to conceive children or young (noun).

Infertility. /ɪnfəːˈtɪlɪti/

On the balcony, Axel drinks two, three, four bottles of beer. He wonders what would have happened if they'd conceived in the hot pool they'd dug for themselves, three years ago. A sand baby. A little boy or girl to teach the rhythms of the sea, to talk to in English-Norwegian, to ride on his shoulders. Perhaps he and Lola would have had two kids by now. Perhaps they'd be miserable in a different way. He's seen it happen to their friends. Maybe he'd have had sex with Lacey anyway, because he wasn't getting it at home. All rivers lead to the same ocean.

He drinks until his head is a radio off-station, white noise, until he feels blunt around the edges. The cicadas are slower, maybe drunk too, who knows? Axel rises and walks down the steps, gravel and grass beneath his feet. The breeze is thick and warm. He smells seaweed, and when he lifts his fingers to his nose, Lola.

There's no one else on the beach now. Moon-silver foam washes around his ankles. He walks into his knees, and bares his throat to the ocean.

A wave washes over his head.

*

When Lola wakes, her head is tight, and her eyes feel as if they are covered in cling film. Still dark, and when she stretches out her hand, no Axel. She slips out of bed, and moves into the lounge. The doors to the balcony are open. The sea sounds as if it's in the front yard, but when she walks outside, she sees the tide has gone out again.

She turns. No Axel. Not on the couch, and when she enters the spare room and flicks on the light, he's not there either.

"Axel?" She turns around, moonlight spilling into her eyes. There's only one place he can be.

*

Axel digs with his hands, yelping when he comes into contact with boiling water. He moves to the left, steaming sand oozing over his feet. The water is cooler here, closer to body temperature. It doesn't take long to dig a hole big enough to stretch out in.

After stripping naked, he lies back, his hair flowing around his ears like seaweed. Closing his eyes, he imagines he's floating in a womb. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, embryogenesis mimicking the stages of evolution. Cells dividing, his spinal cord elongating, fish eyes moving behind translucent lids.

I. Am. A. Neanderthal. I. Am. Cro-Magnon man. I. Am. Screwed.

Light explodes into his eyes.

*

"Jesus, Axel." Lola lowers the torch. "Are you trying to drown yourself?"

Axel sits up, pushing a hand through his hair. "Come on in, the water's boiling," he murmurs.

"You're not funny." She sets the torch on the rocks behind them, and tugs her dress over her head. Axel takes her hand and she nestles between his legs. The weight of his arms around her shoulders is like a sedative, or maybe it's the water steaming around them, or how he knows not to say anything. He kisses her behind the ear the way he knows she likes, and she's crying again, hoping he won't notice.

Two down: pointlessness or uselessness (noun).

Futility /fjʊˈtɪlɪti,fjuːˈtɪlɪti/

*

After a few minutes, Axel says, "What would you do if we made a baby tonight, Lol?"

He waits for her to tense, but her limbs are languid, her head tilted back against his chest. When Lola finally speaks, her voice is slow, syrupy.

"What would you do if we didn't?"

"I'd still love you." He drapes her hair over her left shoulder, kisses the right.

"I never said I didn't love you."

"No," he says. "You never did." He wants to tell her he might come and visit her in Oxford. He wants to tell her he's the hurt she knows. But he doesn't.

Lola says, "I'm tired, Axe. Are you tired?"

"So tired." He stands up, and pulls her to her feet. "Want to go?"

Lola moves into him, and hugs him so hard he can barely breathe. "Yes," she says. "Let's go home."

Axel moves his hand over the pitch of her breasts, the swell of her stomach, the curve of her thighs. He glances over her shoulder. The tide is turning. It never stops.

Eileen Merriman's latest novel The Silence of Snow (Penguin, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide. Next week's short story: "The Turtle" by Airini Beautrais.

* ReadingRoom short stories appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *

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