Still Stars by Jason Jackson
The car radio is playing another song. Picked guitar. No vocal, at least not yet, but I don’t wait. I tune to static instead. I’m driving in the dark again. Not going anywhere. It’s four in the morning, and there’s the throbbing behind my eyes, the twist deep in my gut. The streetlights are white, yellow, then pink, then grey, then blurred, and I’m sick. Nauseous. Outside the window I can see the stars. The meaningless moon, with its stolen glow. No clouds. No rain.
The center of town, and it’s dead. There’s just nothing. No one. I wait at the stop light.
The light’s green now, but I don’t move. No cars behind me. I wait for the red, then the green, then the red again, then the green.
‘Julia,’ I say. Just to hear it. Her name. My voice. I try it again. But the word sticks, and my mouth fills with bile. My hand presses against my lips as I retch. My eyes close. I double over. And there’s a horn behind me, one blast. I look in the mirror. Blinding lights. I swallow, and I pull away. Drive forwards. I pass three blocks before the car behind turns off left, impatient tyres squealing.
Driving. It’s better. Better than lying there, in the too-big bed, too hot, too cold, too sick, too dying, quilt-on, quilt-off, drink-of-water, piss-shit, more-water, eyes-closed, eyes-open, read-a-book, can’t-read, music-on, lamp-on, lamp-off, lamp-on again, lamp-flying-across-the-room-and-crashing-against-the-wall-and-giving-the-room-a-weird-seasick-glow. Driving is better.
Static. It’s better. Better than songs I don’t know, lyrics aboutbeing with you, and baby blue and tell me true, and I love you.Better than songs I do know, that Julia knew, that I can remember her liking, or not liking, or even singing, drunk and happy and loud in that unaware time, before.
Being alone. It’s better. Better than people, the funeral-people with their cry-eyes, with their words I can’t hear, their sad-mouths, the men with their big hands on my shoulder, the women with their soft cheeks turned, with their tasteful perfume and misjudged, low-cut necklines, Better than the back-to-work-people, with their not-sure-what-to-say, talk-about-the-game, compliment-his-shirt-and-try-not-to-mention-death. As if it was something forgotten, already. As if death wasn’t something to live with.
These black, empty streets. This four-in-the-morning sickness, this throb behind the eyes. This gut-twist. This doubled-over pain. This dying. It’s just the way things are. A quick cancer for her and a sluggish decline for me. The way things are.
And now, out of the dark, there’s a figure. She’s standing, alone. A hooker. A four-in-the-morning hooker. Something that simple. I drive past. I just drive straight past, like she’s not there. Like she’s not real. I don’t look at her, and I drive two more blocks, then I turn left, and I head for home.
I sleep for two hours, then I get up in the solid grey of morning.
She’s there again the next night, and I know she’s not real, because it’s not that kind of street, and there are no cars, so no customers, so what would she be doing there anyway, if she was real?
I see her from a block away, because this time I’m looking for her. I’m tight inside. I’m hard, for fuck’s sake. That’s real enough. I’ve driven for three hours straight, avoiding this place.
But I thought about her all day.
And now I’m here and I’m stopping the car and the window is down, already down, and she’s not real, not real, but she’s leaning in, and she says:
On the third night, while she’s buttoning her tiny shirt, stuffing herself into it, cramped by the immaculate space of the car, I tell her about Julia. I don’t say cancer. I just say dead.
‘Bummer,’ is what she says.
On the first night, she tells me how much she costs and I cry immediate hot tears for the first time in a week, and she backs off, saying ‘Hey,’ and ‘Hey, man,’ and I shake my head, saying, ‘No, no. I’m fine.’
On the fourth night I try to kiss her afterwards, and she pulls away.
‘Uh-uh,’ she says.
I look at her. ‘I need to ask you something.’
‘You’re not real, are you?’
She looks at me. Brown eyes. Not beautiful. ‘I’m as real as you want me to be, honey.’
On the second night she doesn’t recognise me from the night before. I see it straight away. What she recognises is the car-smell. ‘Oh,’ she says as she shuts the door. ‘You.’
On the seventh night – our one-week anniversary – I buy a bottle of champagne, because she’s not real, so what the fuck does it matter, but she’s not there, and I drive straight home and I pour it down the sink, watching the yellowy liquid bubble and fizz as it disappears, and I know that I won’t go back, but then on the eighth night, I’m back there again, and so is she.
On the first night I drive to a vacant lot, and I pull at her skirt, push at it. She’s bare-legged. Her cold skin. The sweat-smell. Her furtive, slippery, serious condom. It’s all real enough. I don’t look at her face. The thing starts, and then the thing’s quickly over, and I drive her back to the block in silence, and I don’t cry through three stop-lights. But then I pull over.
On the fifth night, I ask her how old she is, like it’s the first time it’s occurred to me, and she says, ‘Twenty-three,’ and I guess more like nineteen, and I stop the car before we’re more than three blocks away from her corner, and I say, ‘Get out,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ and all she says is, ‘Drive me back, then,’ and just before she gets out she says, ‘If I’m not real, how the hell is twenty-three an issue?’
It’s almost two weeks before she asks what’s wrong with me.
‘I mean,’ she says, ‘sorry, yeah, but you look like shit.’
‘I have a degenerative condition. It affects my bowels. My digestive system.’
She’s undressing. By now, she knows I like her naked, and she feels safe enough. As she pulls off a stocking, she says, ‘You’re dying, right?’ and there’s a sad kind of sympathy there. But it’s thin, momentary.
I wait a second or so for it to disappear, then I say, ‘It’s something I was born with.’ I’m looking straight at her. Her white, bone-stretched skin. Its shadows and marks. My whore-ghost. I smile, and I say, ‘I’ve had a lot of time to get used to the idea of death, but it’s the reality that’s turning out to be the problem.’
‘Does it hurt?’
I think of toilet bowls. Of kneeling in piss at work, in bars. Head down. Retching. I think of mornings doubled over. Of Julia finding me unconscious in the bathroom. Of changing the sheets on the bed. Of the doctor, and his recommendation of bags. The brochure he tried to show me. Him saying, Not for now, but later. When you can’t form a stool. I look at her and I say, ‘It hurts in different ways.’
She swivels to me, nods, and I press the leaver to ease my chair back. ‘And your wife died, yeah?’ she says, climbing onto me. ‘You told me that, right?’
‘Yes.’ I take the condom from her, roll it on. ‘She died.’ The words feel dull and flat in the air between us, and the irony – if that’s what it really is – of having a wife who dies when you’re in the slow process of doing so yourself - doesn’t register with her.
‘You shoulda told me, if you got something catching,’ she says, already on top of me, already working on me.
I realise I’m being gently reprimanded. ‘Not catching,’ I say. ‘You’re safe.’ More irony. More dull, flat words.
‘You sure?’ she says, and she’s rocking now, smiling a little.
‘How long you got? Before, you know.’
‘Too long,’ I say. ‘Or not long enough.’ I smile a useless smile. ‘It depends on how you look at these things.’
We stop talking. For a few minutes I just look at her, into her eyes, and we move, gently, locked in this wordless, static gaze. Until it ends, and we drive back to the corner, and as she’s getting out I say, ‘So, what’s it like? Not being real?’
But she’s already gone.
Some things which are real:
Julia, playing piano. The sun drifts through an open window. She picks out notes, chords. No structure. Her eyes are closed. I’m behind her, pressing myself against her, and my face is in the chaos of her yellow hair.
Julia, sleeping. A grey half-darkness in the bedroom. She breathes slowly, open mouth. Her breath is sour. Hot. I’m next to her, holding myself away so as not to wake her, but my hand reaches out and hovers just above her cheek.
Julia, laughing. A crowd of people, drink, dim lighting. Fourth of July. Something like that. Her eyes catch mine, and she holds the look. A second. Two. It’s me who looks away first.
Julia, in the apartment. Panties. An old shirt. Picking up wine glasses, the crockery from the night before. She looks young, somehow. A girl, almost. Thin. Pale. I’m picking her up, spinning her around, and she’s hitting me on the back, saying, ‘No!’ and ‘Stop,’ and other words that she doesn’t mean.
There are more things that are real. Too many things. Grey-yellow skin. Eyes that don’t look back at you. Screams. The shock of a touch of bone under skin. The impossibility of a final, quiet goodbye. Immaculate, flat sheets on an empty hospital bed.
All gone, now.
So I’m driving, static turned up loud, and it should be the fourteenth night, but she’s not there. There’s just an empty space. So I drive home through the straight, heavy rain, and I try to sleep.
The next night, she’s not there again. Empty space. The same the night after that. I drive past the block where I first saw her - where I used to see her – for three more nights, but she’s not there. She’s never, ever there.
But there are still the real things. There are still streetlights, still the moon.
And there are still stars.
© Jason Jackson 2013
Jason Jackson recently started writing again after a four-year hiatus, and he's already beginning to wonder why. Jason keeps a writing-progress blog attryingtofindthewords.blogspot.co.uk
Still Stars was read by Jonathan Minton for the Sickness & Health Show on 6th February 2013