The sky is butterscotch as the sun melts towards night. I am at the beach with my children, and as Lucy streaks over the sand to tease the shallows with her bare feet, Eddie freezes when I put him down, unsure how to navigate the shifting world beneath his sandals. My husband pulls his phone out to capture Ed’s shaky steps, and Joe laughs, rich and honeyed, as he follows our boy. My family in a flare of sun: wobbling, running, shrieking to the water.
We often drive to Terrigal in late afternoons. Joe comes home, weary from the workday, and asks the kids if they want a run on the sand. He breathes big breaths when we near the beach, rolling down the windows to drink the salty air. I am a spectator at first: watching their movement, the smooth lines of their joy. I take in the scope of the beach and its undulating waves. The white specks of seagulls in honeycomb cliffs. The way the mauve water blends into darkening horizon.
Today, there are two people sitting on the steps by the surf club. The place is virtually deserted except for my family, a couple of dog walkers, and these two. They jolt me with their young faces, the way they lean into each other; the fact that they are sitting in that exact spot, some ten years after I did. And I think of Daniel and that evening when the air was spiced with Thai takeaway and the waves crashed ominously in the darkness. I sat close then also, buffeting the wind with his body. We virtually had that beach alone then, too.
It’s getting late and the kids are rumbling for dinner. Ed’s soaked to the waist from plonking bottom-first into the baby waves; his nappy inflated like a balloon. He cries from the cold shock and tiredness. It’s time to call it a day. Joe wraps Eddie in a towel and carries him like a much smaller baby than he is. Lu runs after. She’s crusted in wet-sand and has burdened her pockets with shells. We drive home, throw pasta on for dinner and open the windows wide to the smell of jasmine in the garden. It’s a special bliss, this, and I am full.
I see that couple in my dreams. The boy’s wearing shorts and a collared shirt with bamboo fronds stamped on the olive cloth. They’re obviously new to this, his left arm’s around her shoulders in an awkward arch: he’s tense and exultant. She responds with a self-conscious lean, the distance between their hips belying their nerves. But they’re beautiful in their newness; the world is wide open before them.
It’s Daniel’s smile that floats up from the dirge of memory when I’m wide awake at 3 a.m. I’m in my early twenties and I take his offered hand some spring afternoon a decade ago. He’s up from Melbourne staying with some uni friends, and there’s a bunch of us at the beach watching Frisbees carve the sea mist in clean slices. When he shakes hands hello, I take in his wide mouth, those luminous teeth. Eyes like the sky, nut-brown skin. He’s enjoying the sun of Sydney after his grey city.
Did I love him already, then? He’s a shape in my bedroom – I’ve willed him, sharp as anything; I would talk to him if it weren’t for Joe. My husband murmurs in his sleep, shifts his hips, throws an arm over his head. Two men, two universes. I’m segmented by their appearance in my life: one left, the other came. Anno Daniel.
‘I’ve been to Melbourne once,’ I say that first day on the beach, trying to pull his attention warm around me like a towel. ‘I loved St Kilda and the trams to the city and eating my way through Lygon St.’ He laughs, deep, and I want to kiss that mouth so badly. I’m speaking nonsense and I’m grateful he doesn’t say so.
I’m too shy to ask my friends how to contact him afterwards, and I’m not sure he’d want to hear from the girl he spoke to for five minutes. The year slides into the mania of final exams and my attention funnels into textbooks, until a party snaps Daniel back into focus. It’s new years and he’s in front of me, dark-shirted and messy-haired. ‘Claire.’ He says, grinning. I’m remembered.
At the end of the summer, he phones out of the blue: ‘Claire, I’m in Sydney, but just overnight. Can I see you?’ I’m tingly with excitement but I can’t get my head straight. I’m ninety minutes north of the city and my car’s too crap to make it down the freeway. ‘No worries,’ he says. ‘I’ll get on a train now. Meet me at the other end?’
We’re standing out the front of up-market restaurants but can’t decide what we feel like. When we walk by this hole-in-the-wall Thai place, Daniel stops – ‘up for it?’ and we order massaman and green curry and vegetables in peanut dressing and take it to the steps on the sea wall. We sit by the empty beach with our backs to the surf club and our laughter echoes with the crashing waves as we drip sauce through our fingers.
It’s cold; I lean in, Daniel’s body foreign and welcoming. That nervous first contact, the warmth of his neck on my cheek. His face turns towards me and he looks at me long. When we kiss, it’s satay and fireworks. I’m falling inwards and the euphoria makes me dizzy. Racing ocean, roaring heart. It’s love, for certain.
Joe and I talk of Daniel when the morning comes sliding sideways through the window. I haven’t managed to fall back asleep and it’s the first thing Joe asks me when he sees my weary face. He never met Daniel, though he knows his story well. He’s not afraid of the force of my memory, but sometimes I wonder if he’s tired of my tired heart. I love two men, but only one is here.
‘Claire, I’m sick,’ Daniel says, as we’re waiting for his train to come. We’re in my car at midnight and we don’t know how to leave each other again. I can’t stop kissing his lips and cheeks and neck and he’s holding me so tight I’m breathless with want. And he murmurs those words into my hair in a long, sad exhale. I brace against him, stunned.
‘I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner. It’s just… Ah, I don’t know. I wanted to forget about myself for a moment and imagine what we could be.’
‘What do you mean, ‘sick’?’ I remember asking. The car feels smaller, suddenly, the summer night too hot. Sick sick, where multiple sclerosis is starting to eat away at his muscles and nerves. I feel the broadness of his chest, the heft of him against me, and I can’t imagine him wasting, his limbs out of sync with his brain, his body settling into turmoil. I cry when he leaves, but I won’t let him stop things. In the middle of the night, in an empty train station, I’m left sucker punched.
When I’ve saved enough to fly to Melbourne mid-Autumn, he walks with a slight limp in his right leg. He hook-turns through the city and we walk by the river as evening draws the light from the sky. He takes my hand and we’re silent, dwarfed by the scope of the cityscape, the beauty before us. I keep getting distracted by the new rhythm of his walk from that rebellious leg. We don’t talk about it, though. Instead, we dance up close under strings of lights and milky galaxies.
Neither of us can sleep that night. We’re on the couch in the early hours of the morning and he pulls me into those strong arms, resting his face in my hair. The dark makes him candid; he can’t see my reaction. And as he holds me he’s achingly honest. ‘It’s getting worse, Claire. Apparently being diagnosed so young means the decline’s quicker, more intense. My leg… it’s getting difficult to walk sometimes. I’m getting so tired.’ I breathe deep, frightened of his fear. It’s been easy to pretend it’s not so bad from the false bravado of his voice on the phone. That voice convinces me he’ll always be vital and strong despite his diagnosis. I’m chilled by reality tonight.
‘Oh Dan, I just… It’ll be alright. I’m sure.’ What am I saying? I know that’s not true. I know there’s no coming back. I’m resolved to run into this with him. I tell him that and he sobs, curled into himself. I weep too. We love each other fiery in that stifling room. We’re wound together like rope, hard and bolstered against the weather. And as the sun comes up and brings Daniel’s face into warm focus, I nuzzle in and tell him I love him. Sleepily, he smiles those bright teeth. He does too.
It’s a jammy toast morning. I make a gallon of tea to ward off my fatigue and the kids run circles around the lounge dressed as pirates. It’s Saturday and Joe’s barefoot on the balcony, watering the plants before the sun bites hard. His dark hair’s pulled back in a rough ponytail and he’s shirtless in the heat. The kids hear his humming and thwack through the screen door, pattering frantically against the wood. Our children adore him. They echo him in their brown eyes and thick curls. I can’t imagine the children Daniel and I would have made; perhaps they weren’t meant to exist.
The weatherman says that this heat will manifest in a storm later today and the clouds over the distant hills are already looking mutinous. I feel it in the heavy air through the windows, the strange tinge to the light. Cockatoos beat against the sky, their shrieks vibrating in my bones. And yet my children dance in this impending chaos, stomping their meaty feet against the deck. Joe sprays them with a flash of hose. They shriek, and he lumbers after them, pretending to be a water monster.
Three years with Daniel. When uni ends I move south and we live in a small flat in Fitzroy. At night it thrums with music from the restaurants nearby and our dreams are to the rhythm of flamenco. I see him fade into himself, his muscles tingle with disease and that massive body sinks into a wheelchair, finally. I love him fierce and we laugh in the bleakness. He still folds me in when we tuck into sleep. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to live like this.
I get a call from Daniel’s mother when I visit home at the end of one summer. In some great twist of irony, his death doesn’t come from sickness, but in the horrific crumpling of a friend’s car around a semitrailer. No one in either vehicle survives. My own world buckles at the end of the line; I fall, inverse, and my grief is waves on wet sand, tidal and monstrous. I lace words together in a eulogy I can’t read. I pack up our apartment and put his life into neat boxes. I put photos of him face down because I can’t bear that smile.
And times ebbs on. I meet Joe some time later and some more time later my heart leans all in. And we marry by the water and our babies come soon after. I can’t shake Daniel; I don’t want to. He haunts me in dreams where I touch his glowing skin and his ghost paces the peripheral of my memories. Some days I’m still winded with loss, others I smile at kids like us on the Terrigal beach steps. Love sucks deep to the horizon and crashes in a thunderous wall of foam. My life is full.
Hannah Macauley-Gierhart is a writer, teacher, mother, and voracious reader. She has an MA in Creative Writing through Macquarie University, receiving the Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation for Academic Excellence for her work there. She is a fiction reader for Overland literary journal and 2017 has also seen her undertake a fiction internship with Kill Your Darlings and participate in the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program. Her work has appeared in places like Overland, Right Now, Writer’s Edit, and The Huffington Post. In the midst of this and the joyous bedlam of raising small children, she is seen writing at strange hours, drinking lots of tea, and loving the chaos that fuels good prose.