Matt Buckley is 37 and deeply uncomfortable writing about himself in the third person. He loves Flannery O'Connor, hates Ernest Cline, and aims to write more stories than anyone in history but is gradually coming to terms with the possibility that that isn't going to happen. So far he's written nine. Email: email@example.com
This mental patient was coming for dinner. Not full crazy, not psychotic or anything. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He was the brother of one of the producers on the show my wife was working on, and had just come out of hospital. I wasn’t crazy about it. I didn’t like people in the house at the best of times. The place always seemed messier than I could see how three people could make it, and Kylie becomes a nightmare in the lead-up to any kind of visit. She gets all uptight about being judged. Why’d you become an actor, then? I always rib her. But she can never see what one thing has to do with another. But I kept mostly quiet because she was excited, and because this was the first serious job she’d had since the soap opera folded. That was two years ago. In the meantime, it was all bit parts on sitcoms and a couple of commercials and one small role in a movie she got cut from anyway. It would’ve been nice of them to tell us before she got all dressed up for the premiere. She was so embarrassed. And I was the one who had to wear it all the way home. Anyway, she looked nice. So it was a good thing, her having this job. Even if it was, in her words, a pile of shit. Another quirky genius detective with mental problems. This time it was OCD. There are a million of them, and she knows it. But still, it was work. And the money wouldn’t hurt. She was playing his sister because, the way she told it to me, she was only a year younger than the guy playing the lead, and so she was ten years too old to play his girlfriend. Anyway, she asked the producers if they could hook her up with someone who has OCD in real life so she could ‘get into his head’. She’s such an actor sometimes. We were in the front room waiting like idiots for the bell to ring. I hadn’t see Kylie this excited for a long time. Not longer than I could remember, exactly; but longer, probably, than it should ever be since a man’s seen his wife so happy. All week she talked about this guy and she hadn’t even met him. She does that – build things up and up until she can’t help but get disappointed. She’d been reading about OCD, too. All week she told me every time she found an interesting story or had a question about what he’d be like. Stuff like “How do you think he goes in the bathroom?” or “Do you think he’s really good at maths?” I didn’t know what to say, so I usually just said yes. All week she was obsessed like that. She asked me questions about Sherlock Holmes and made me watch Rain Man. I told her it had nothing to do with OCD. She didn’t seem to care. And she cleaned like a maniac. All week, I couldn’t get out of a seat without her dusting the spot where my ass was. On the night we were expecting him, Tate was on the floor playing with one of his rockets. We heard the knock. It was just the usual, knock knock knock. I was disappointed. I guess I was expecting it to be something quirky. Kylie jumped out of her seat. Then she stopped, and looked at me. “Get it, would you?” She wouldn’t say it, but I knew she thought it wouldn’t look right for her to be answering her own door. I hate when she gets like that. I opened the door. I looked him over before I invited him in. He was kind of tall, but not that much. He had short, dark hair. He was wearing a polo shirt and a pair of new-looking jeans. That’s about it. He didn’t look much different to any other guy you might meet. “Kim?” I asked. He put his hand out for a shake. It took me a second to take him up on it. I introduced myself and invited him in. Kylie called out from over my shoulder. “Oh Kim, it’s so good to see you. Here, come in, come in.” She swanned past me and gave him a hug. As soon as she did, though, she seized up like she’d done something wrong. She pulled back. Then she kissed his cheek without coming within three inches of his skin, and turned around to me. “This is my husband”, she said. “How you doing?” he said. His voice was deep and kind of thick and wet-sounding, kind of nerdy. But he spoke easy enough. I watched his eyes. At first he just looked me in the face. But a second later I saw him looking around the room like he might be uneasy about something. “Good, good”, Kylie answered for me. “Please, come through to the parlour.” She hadn’t called it a parlour in six years of living here. I closed the door and walked behind them. She showed Kim to a seat. It was my seat, but I kept my mouth shut. She was already on edge. I sat on the long couch. “So, Kim…” She was acting casual, but I knew that she was consulting her mental notes. “Did you find the place alright?” He answered easy enough. I was watching for tics, like you see these guys do on TV. But nothing. Just said he’d gotten lost once, but that it could’ve probably been avoided if he’d just given up and bought one of those navigation things for his car, but that he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. I wondered if maybe it had something to do with the OCD. He complimented her on the house, and she acted like it was always the way it was now. Then she offered him a choice of every kind of tea ever made. Most of what she offered I’m pretty sure we didn’t have. He said he was fine with whatever. She went off to the kitchen looking disappointed. And then I was left alone with him. I didn’t know what to ask him. I asked how he knew Kylie, even though I knew. And when he said his sister worked with her, I acted surprised and asked what his sister did, even though I knew that too. He said she was a producer. I asked what a producer did. “Fuck with artists to make money”, he said. I don’t know why, but hearing him say ‘fuck’ struck me. It was like it might be if I ever heard my mother say it. I don’t know why. If you’d asked me if I thought people with mental problems swore, I probably would’ve said yes. All I know is I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t want it to show, though. “So they’re professional assholes”, I said. He laughed. “Yeah.” He looked around the room. The way he looked at things was still a little weird. It was like he would be focusing on one thing when he thought he heard a voice from somewhere else, so his eyes darted off in that direction, then rested there for a second before he heard the voice from somewhere else and off he went again. It was a bit weird. But then I might have been looking too hard. I guess everyone does some weird thing or another if you’re looking for it hard enough. I felt like it was time for me to say something again. “So…” I started. “You don’t mind us…” I didn’t know how I was going to finish. But it got to that point where I’d been looking for a word too long to just keep looking without saying something. “I mean… I mean, this must be kind of strange, you don’t do this-” He jumped in. Thank Christ. “Clara explained it to me. My sister. She told me Kylie wanted to put a human face to the OCD.” The way he said it – ‘ the OCD’ – There was something in it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The best I could come up with was that he said it like he was talking about an old friend. That wasn’t quite it, but it was the best I could do. I was just starting to ask him if he was okay with it, some stranger picking his brain like that, when Kylie came in with the drinks. She handed Kim his drink first, then put hers down beside where she was sitting. I could see she’d made herself a tea, too. Some actor trick, I guessed. She never drank tea. At least she didn’t try anything funny on me. She handed me my scotch, neat. But not without giving me a look like I shouldn’t have been drinking. “The dinner should be just a few more minutes. So, Kim…” Again, pretending. There was no need for that pause. She knew exactly what she was going to say next. She’d spent the whole time in the kitchen rehearsing it. “Clara tells me you used to want to be a detective”, she said. And then sat back, waiting. She may as well have had a pen and a notepad in her hand. Kim smiled. “Once, a long time ago, yeah. But – Well, I envy you. You’re living your dream.” He smiled. It was an easy smile, natural. Kylie ate it up. I sometimes think that’s part of being an actor – they lie so much that they assume everybody else must be telling the truth. Either that, or they get so wrapped up in analysing their own actions that they can’t tell when someone’s full of shit right under their nose. “I don’t know about that”, she said, and swatted the compliment away with her hand. “What do you do for a living?” I asked. Kylie shot me a nasty look. “Um…” he said. “Kim’s on a sabbatical”, Kylie jumped in. The look she gave me, Christ. Then she looked at him to check he hadn’t seen it. But then he said, “I’m about halfway into a year off. I’m actually writing a book”, and I was in the clear again. “About the – ” I don’t know if he knew what Kylie was going to say, or saw her face drop when she realised what she was saying. But if he did, he was nice and pretended not to. “About what?” she tried to recover. “Well, it’s hard to explain. It’s… I don’t want to sound all arty, but – It’s not really ‘about’ anything, if you know what I mean? Its… There are three main characters, two painters and an art dealer, and there’s this painting that goes missing but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s –” And he went on like that for about another minute. Here Kylie was probably thinking she might be able to read what he’d written so far, that it’d be useful, help her understand what it’s like to have OCD or something. Instead, he was writing a book about a stolen painting. I could feel her disappointment. I was even kind of disappointed myself. “You’ll have to let us read it when you’re finished”, she said. “Definitely”, he said. He believed she meant it. People get that way when they’re talking about the things that they love, I’ve noticed. “So, do you have any hobbies? Besides writing?” Kylie asked. He was still smiling from talking about the book. “I haven’t had much time for anything much besides writing”, he said. “But I love music. I used to play guitar a bit.” “So did he”, Kylie said. “He used to write me songs. But now – Well. Don’t get married, is all I’ll say, Kim.” They both laughed. He got back to answering. “I like movies a lot, and – reading, obviously. They say that good writers are good readers. But I’m not even doing so much of that these days. And… That’s about it.” He shrugged, and smiled again. “That sounds good. At least you’re keeping busy”, Kylie said. She stood up. “Excuse me, I just have to go and plate up dinner.” And she left. It was just me and him again. I wasn’t feeling as awkward as I thought I would around him, though. Maybe I’d let myself get sucked into Kylie’s hysteria, but I was really expecting him to be kind of nuts. And then, when he wasn’t, I caught myself feeling a little disappointed. “So, you got a girl?” I asked. He breathed out, long and slow. “No sir, I do not”, he said. He had the sound of someone who’d just gotten out of a relationship that was as tough to be in as out of. I laughed. “Long story, huh?” Maybe this would be something, I thought. Some ammo for Kylie, something to help her with her performances. About how OCD folk get on with women. I guessed that, for as normal as he was seeming, that whole side of life was probably a minefield. I mean, even when sex is clean, it’s dirty. “Yeah, a bit”, he said. “She turned out to be religious. Like, really religious. I – ” He looked worried. “Are – Are you guys religious?” He had nothing to worry about there. “No”, I told him. He relaxed again. “Shit, I thought I might’ve put my foot in it.” And he was about to go on when Kylie called out that dinner was ready. I helped her serve up the food. Kim said it looked nice, and we all sat down. I asked him if he wanted to say grace. For a second he looked worried. Then I smiled and he relaxed. He asked us how we met, and Kylie told him how. She didn’t lie, exactly, but the way she told it made it sound a lot more glamourous than the way it was. He was real curious. All through dinner he asked questions, about our work, about the house, the neighbourhood, if we had any pets, all sorts of things. The conversation flowed pretty easy. There weren’t many uncomfortable lulls, anyway. And where there were, they probably had more to do with Kylie and me than with him. We were starting to get desperate. Her especially. At one point, she even tried to set him off. She offered him a piece of pumpkin – there was a plate of sliced pumpkin on the table and he hadn’t taken any, so she offered him one. He took one, probably just to be polite. She waited until just the second when he’d put the first piece in his mouth, then said, “Would you believe there was dirt all over those pumpkins when I picked them up?” She sat back and watched for a reaction. I was torn between watching her watching him and watching him myself. Either way, I was disappointed. He either didn’t hear or he didn’t care. He just kept chewing his mouthful of pumpkin. When he started to reach for another one she got more desperate. “There was a cockroach on one of them”, she said. She was trying to sound nonchalant, but she was staring at him, plain as day. Finally he looked up. “Jesus”, he said. I could see her face. Finally, she was thinking. Something. “Did you say something to the – the person at the market?” And he shovelled another forkful of pumpkin into his mouth. She was too disappointed or shocked or something to answer. After a second I jumped in. “She never mentions stuff like that. She’s too polite for her own good.” I tried to make eye contact, but he had his eyes closed. She came to. “Yeah, well… I don’t like to – I don’t want to cause a scene”, she said. She sounded a little short of breath. She looked at me as if to ask what she should do. But I didn’t know how to look back at her. So I didn’t. He finished chewing his pumpkin. He looked at Kylie and asked, “So what made you want to go into acting?” For the rest of the meal we were his interview subjects and not the other way around. While we answered his questions, I knew Kylie was wracking her brain like me only worse, trying to think of something else she could do to push him over the edge. I tried to think of something else OCD people couldn’t handle besides dirt, but that was all I could come up with. I could tell from looking at her it was all she had too. They liked things neat and orderly – Orderly. I tried something new. The salt and pepper shakers were standing neatly in the middle of the table. I reached over and lay the salt shaker on its side. Real nonchalant. I was talking while I did it – answering some question he’d asked about which foreign countries I’d visited – and when I was done I sat back and waited to see how he’d react. I saw it crawling over his skin. He looked in the general direction of the shaker. Then he looked away. He asked another question. He laughed at something I said that wasn’t really funny. He picked at the dregs of pumpkin on his plate. And then Kylie breathed out loudly and stood the salt shaker on its base again. She brought out dessert. He told a story about how his sister used to get out of helping their dad haul mulch on weekend mornings by telling him that she worried the exercise might make her tampon fall out. The old man couldn’t bear to hear her mention the word ‘tampon’, so Kim was left to do twice the work. Kylie looked kind of uncomfortable, though I wasn’t sure if it was the story, or how it kind of put the final nail in any hope she had of him being some kind of a squeamish headcase. She went out and brought him another tea, me another scotch, and herself her first wine of the night. We asked him about his parents, and eventually the conversation drifted to the TV show. Kim said that his sister had told him how terrible it was, but that it was good for her career. Kylie agreed. I poured myself another drink. Then something happened. Kylie was halfway through saying something about how there were no good parts for women her age or something when he dropped his fork onto his plate. He looked afraid. More than afraid. That real gut-level fear, it was - the primal, wordless kind, that gets left behind at a certain point as you grow up and only comes back when there’s a gun pointed at you or a doctor says ‘cancer’. Senseless, animal fear. Gut fear. He had it, I could tell. For a second it was like that, like you see on TV. A frozen moment, his face in close-up and everything real, real still. And then the sound comes in and it all explodes. The sound of the fork hitting the plate ringing over the clink of Kim’s drink tipping over, and the tea gushing over the tablecloth while Tate screamed and Kylie yelled “Fuck” and kicked her chair against the wall behind her and was somehow already there holding Tate against her chest. The sound of Kim’s shoes scuffing against the wall and the dog barking, Tate gulping mouthfuls of air like he was drowning and the toy rocket stuck in a loop, blaring the same phrrrrrrweowweowweow over and over again while he screamed and screamed louder and louder, Kylie holding him the whole time and hushing him silently. There was another sound coming from the wall where Kim stood too. It took a while for me to figure out it was words, and a while longer before I realised it was all the same two words over and over. He was saying I’msorryI’msorry I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’m” and Tate kept screaming and Kylie was cooing and I kept watching. Kim was pressed hard up against the wall. He had one hand over his mouth and was breathing hard. And he was blinking a lot. Not fast, like a fluttery kind of blinking - real deliberate, heavy blinks, like he was trying to crush a small, sleeping bug between his eyelids. They looked like they hurt, those blinks. I knew what they were for. He was trying to wish himself somewhere else. At the other end of the table Kylie was holding Tate and raking her hands through his hair. She ran her eyes over his face, inspecting the damage. There was a tiny trickle of blood running over his bottom lip but that was it. From the screaming you would’ve thought it was a lot worse. And the baby was staring at Kim with his eyes so wide I wondered for a second if they might honest to God fall out of his head. And Kim was trying to catch Kylie’s eyes, only she didn’t know it because she was looking a few inches lower, where his hand was held over his mouth. It was shaking, and the back of it was smeared with blood. She didn’t know Kim was looking at her because she was looking at Tate who didn’t know she was looking at him because he was looking at Kim who didn’t know Tate was looking at him because he was looking at Kylie. I stood outside the blind triangle of their eyelines, just watching it all. I didn’t even think to wonder how long I’d been standing there. Eventually I came around. I moved over to Kylie and tried to take Tate. She batted me away and pulled him closer to her. She shot Kim a look and stormed off through the kitchen door. I looked at Kim. He was down on the floor with his arms around his knees. He was crying like a lost child. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t as angry as I thought I should have been, though, and I didn’t know why. But I was pretty sure I didn’t want to pull at that thread. It was hard not to feel sorry for him. Obviously he felt bad. And anyway, I figured I had to help someone. I tried to help the kid first, but she had it covered. So it wasn’t like I didn’t try. I sat down next to him. Only about a minute earlier all I could think about was how disappointingly normal he was. And now he was crying into his knees in a stranger’s dining room, shuddering and moaning and with drool all over his pants. He wasn’t that much younger than me. I never saw anything so hard to watch in my life. I sat there waiting for him to stop crying so that I could jump in with something. After a while I got sick of waiting. I cleared my throat. “What happened there?” It was all I could think to say. After a couple of seconds I started wondering if he’d heard me. If he hadn’t, I don’t think I would have asked again. I started hoping he hadn’t. The room was nearly silent except for the buzz of the insects outside. On hot nights like tonight they collected in the pines outside our house. I guess it felt quieter, too, because all the noise from a little while ago was gone. The crying slowed down. It turned into one of those moans that sound almost like laughing, and then turned into nothing. He lifted his head. The skin around his eyes was raw pink. He was smiling the way people do when they’ve been crying and they want you to know they know how stupid they look. “I don’t know”, he said. “Really?” He laughed again. “No.” He laughed again. “I know”, he said. I waited again. I was getting kind of tired of him making me do all the work. Eventually I asked, “What was it?” He looked toward the kitchen. “The boy”, I said. He looked like he probably thought he was nodding. “Did he do something wrong? What happened?” He looked me square in the face. It was only when he did that that I started to think maybe he hadn’t looked me in the eye all night up to that point. His eyes were the bluest I’d ever seen. They looked like the eyes in those old black-and-white photos where the colours are painted on. They never look quite right, those pictures; the colours are always too bold, too bright. Eyes don’t come in the colours you see in those photos. But his did. “This is what you got me here for”, he said. He was looking straight ahead now. He looked like an actor right when they’re about to launch into a monologue. I’d seen Kylie pull this move. It always feels so pretentious, so studied. But then I remembered that he wasn’t an actor. And that, if this reminded me of acting, it was probably because when Kylie was acting she was just imitating real things people did, and this was one of them. Sometimes I think being around an actor so much has ruined me in some ways. “You wanted to see crazy, right?” His voice was sardonic as all hell. Well…” He opened his hands, as if to say ‘here it is’. I didn’t say anything. “This is the stuff you don’t see on TV.” And he laughed emptily. “Everybody thinks it’s all handwashing and locking the door eight times and alphabetising your record collection, and…” He left the thought, started a new one. “When I used to tell people I had it – I don’t anymore, but I used to be pretty open about it, if anyone asked, or sometimes even if they didn’t – and, uh…” He traced the cord back to what he was saying. “When I used to tell people I had it, they all asked the same fucking thing. ‘Is your house really neat?’ “Or – oh, even worse – ” He was off and running now. He rocked back and forth a little. “The ones who, I’d tell them and they’d say, ‘I think I have a bit of OCD too’. Because they like to always wash the knives before the forks, or some bullshit like that. Like that’s what I have. I have to wash the fucking forks before the knives. That’s why I tried to kill myself for the first time when I was fourteen. I washed the… fuckin’ cutlery in the wrong order. Or, or, the ones who say, ‘I’m a bit OCD like that.” Like, because they like the colour of the pegs to match the clothes they’re hanging. ‘I’m a bit OCD like that.’ You couldn’t say ‘I’m a bit AIDS like that.’ ‘I like wearing bandannas – I’m a bit ovarian cancer like that.’ You know?” He looked for something in my face. I hoped it was there. But I doubt it was. He kept going. “You know my least favourite word in the world?” I was glad he didn’t pause. I didn’t want to guess. “‘Quirky’. I – ugh, Jesus Christ. Fucking ‘quirky’. You know what ‘quirky ‘is? Quirky is – quirky is wearing odd coloured socks. That’s quirky. Humming to yourself out in public. That’s quirky.” It seemed like all he wanted me to do for him was to listen. Which I was happy about. That’s all I was sure I knew how to do. “You know what’s not quirky? Not being able to be in the same room with your own baby brother. That’s not quirky. That’s just fucking…” He stopped for a minute. “Hard.” I don’t think I’ve had what you’d call an easy life. Some things have happened. But then I guess I’ve also never met anyone who would say they’ve had it easy, either. But some of them must have, or else we’ve all had hard lives. And we can’t all have had it worse than most. That wouldn’t be possible. So I have to at least consider the possibility that maybe I’m one of the ones who’s had it better than most. Anyway, the way he looked just then, and the way he said that one word - ‘hard’ - made me think he knew something about hard times that I couldn’t imagine. It didn’t make me feel jealous or weak. It just made me feel glad. He hadn’t said anything for a while now. I knew it was my turn to talk. I didn’t know what to say. “But… I still don’t get -” He looked up at the ceiling. He took a long, slow breath. I waited until I was sure nothing was coming. “What happened?” His eyes didn’t move. I saw where they were fixed. On the ceiling – maybe the one place in the house Kylie hadn’t cleaned before Kim came to visit – there was a tiny black smudge I’d never noticed before. It looked like a tiny shadow puppet, that dog head shape kids make. Only smeared and maybe missing a finger. When he spoke again his voice was tiny. “I can’t say.” I didn’t want to touch him just in case. But I tried to make my voice sound like a hand on his shoulder. “Yes you can, Kim.” He grimaced and said “No”. He met my eyes. “I can’t.” He was serious. I’d come that far, though. And more to the point, I had nowhere else to be. I sure as hell wasn’t in any rush to hear whatever Kylie had to say to me. “Come on, man”, I said. “I don’t know how bad you think it is, but it isn’t that bad.” “I was afraid of raping your son.” The first thing would have been to hit him. When someone says they thought about raping your kid, that’s where your mind goes. He was lucky, though. It had been about ten years since the last time I’d hit anyone. Also, I’d had a couple of drinks by now. I’m not one of those guys who gets angry when he drinks. It usually makes me more relaxed until I get so relaxed I fall asleep. Still, I had to do something. He’d said about the worst thing a person can say. I turned toward him and got halfway up, so that I was on one knee. He must have thought I was going to hit him. He put his hands up and started talking fast. “I didn’t – I wasn’t actually, I would never – God, never, I wouldn’t ever do that. I’m not –“ I just listened. I wasn’t going to hit him, but I wasn’t in a rush to let him know that. I noticed my hands. They weren’t even fists. “I just, you don’t – You don’t understand. Not that you should, I know, shit, I just said I – ” He was looking at the floor, like he was talking to a face there. “I know how it must have sounded. I didn’t mean it like that. I – I want you to know - It… It’s weird. I mean – That’s the whole problem.” I was interested in where this was going. More interested than angry, and a little guilty for that reason. I sat back down on the floor. “Like – on the one hand, I can say what I know you want me to say, which is what I should say. I – I didn’t actually think about raping – “ He paused after the word, and in the empty space I felt like I could tell what he was thinking. That he’d paused because of how terrible the word is, but by pausing, he’d just left it hanging there, and he needed to say something or it would be all either of us could think about. “– rapingyourson because obviously that’s horrible, that’s evil and I’m not evil and I would never want to do something so horrible. And it’s not like I want to anyway, I mean – I mean, I like women, not that – well – ” “Let me cut in for a second”, I said. “You – you don’t want to – do that. Yeah?” He shook his head almost clean off. “Right. Okay. That’s a relief.” We didn’t speak for a few seconds. Then he said: “But – ” Which isn’t what you want to hear. I must have looked like I was going to hit him again. “No – I mean, no, I, it’s true, I don’t, I don’t – I just – “ He slumped back against the wall and sighed. “You wouldn’t get it.” I didn’t get it. And to be honest, it didn’t bother me all that much that I didn’t. The way I see it, other people’s heads and the way they work has never been my problem or my business. And so I was really tempted to leave it at that. But I remembered Kylie, and Tate, in that order, and I decided I had to stay interested. I pushed on. “You’re dead right there”, I said. “I don’t get it. I have no… fucking clue what’s going on.” He looked like he was counting the patterns on the carpet. “But Kim”, I said. He looked up. “I want to.” It didn’t sound like me. But he didn’t really know what I sounded like. I sat down again, next to him. He leaned against the wall. And then it all kind of opened. About the OCD, about how it makes him worry he is things that he knows he isn’t, or at least knows he should know he isn’t. About how it makes him think that he might do or want to do things he mostly knows he doesn’t want to do. About how it’s able to hit him where it hurts most because it lives in his head and knows what he doesn’t want to hear. He told me that it was something different for everyone who had it. He told me stories about other people he’d met in the hospital and what it was like for them. Mostly it was either sexual or medical: one guy was worried he wanted to fuck his mother, another one thought he had cancer in any part of his body he touched, things like that. Except he didn’t really think that, the cancer guy - the OCD thought that, or it tried to make him think that, even though he didn’t want to. Sometimes it was germs, like you see on TV. But he told me that wasn’t as common as people think. Sometimes it was something else altogether. He told me about one woman, a stay at home mother who booked herself into the hospital because the OCD told her that she didn’t love her daughter who’d died a year before. She kept trying to convince herself that she did, but it was never enough. Eventually she killed herself. There were obsessions, he said – the things you worry about – and compulsions. The compulsions were the things you do to get the obsessions off your mind. It didn’t really matter what the compulsions were, he said. They could be anything. That’s why some people stepped on cracks, or didn’t, or only stepped on every second crack. It wasn’t like they didn’t know how stupid it was, either. But they had to do something. The compulsions, the way he told it, let you stop obsessing. Their whole power came from how much you believed in them. They were like spells, I thought. He didn’t tell me what his were. But I think the blinking might have had something to do with it. It was starting to feel like I could ask him anything. I asked him when it all started. He said it was a dream he had when he thirteen. I could tell he didn’t want to go into it any more than that. So I left it. He changed the subject. The compulsions changed over time, he said. Over the years they got more and more complex, so that when he looked back on the old ones now they looked quaint by comparison. It turns out he did have a thing about washing his hands, once, when he was first starting out. He used to wash them thirty, forty times a day because he thought his hands were covered in semen. By the end of every day his knuckles would be gristly with dried blood. He laughed at the memory the way people laugh at their old school photos. When he was thirteen his mother sent him to his uncle’s farm for the summer to sort him out. They were on tank water and he wasn’t allowed to use the tap more than three times a day. For the first week he cried and screamed and tried to scratch off his skin. By the end of the third week, he could spend a day outside helping his uncle feed chickens and repair fences and be so hungry by dinner his aunt would have to remind him to wash his hands before he ate. He came home thinking he was cured. Then one day in Geography he started tracing the lines of mortar between the bricks in the walls, moving across and up in some game he couldn’t quite figure out the point of but couldn’t stop playing. He drew lines in his mind, connecting the corners of the walls, trying to find the exact centre. He counted the syllables in his sentences and wouldn’t stop talking until he could end his thought on an even number. Eventually he realised that it was the same monster, just wearing a different face. The first time he tried to kill himself he was fourteen, like he said. He was left alone with his niece, his older brother’s daughter, for an afternoon. He didn’t want them to leave him alone with her, but no one listened to his excuses and he couldn’t exactly tell them what was really worrying him so he said okay. But when everyone was gone she had jumped into his lap and it was too much. When his brother and parents got home Kim was in the shower with a belly full of his mother’s menopause tablets, and the four year old was locked in the pantry. The second time was after a school excursion to a childcare centre. He’d slashed his wrists sideways like he’d seen people do in movies. But when he saw blood he got scared and ran into his mother’s bedroom and she drove him to the hospital. For some reason the orderly told him it only worked if he cut vertically. So the third time he did. It still didn’t work, but this time because his sister found him after he passed out but before he lost too much blood to be brought back around. The fourth time had something to do with a girl whose name he couldn’t remember. I looked at the clock. It was nearly eleven. He must have seen me looking. “I’ve been carrying on long enough. I should let you get back to – your family. Tell Kylie I’m…” He looked for the words. “It’s okay”, I said. “I’ll smooth it over.” I stood up. Everything felt different. It was like we’d both come back from some faraway place, and now the normal world looked strange and full of people who didn’t understand. It was like coming out of a dark cinema into the midday sun. I was working towards saying goodbye when I heard Kylie’s voice from the stairs. “What’s he still doing here?” Next to me I could feel Kim shrinking. I hated her just then. I told her I was just about to walk him out. “How courteous of you”, she said. She turned to go back up the stairs. And then, timed to the second: “Oh, and if you get a minute – your son’s been screaming about his injured face for half an hour. Do you think maybe you could get around to popping in?” She went back to climbing the stairs. I could see from the back of her head that she was smiling. I turned back to Kim. “She didn’t mean that”, I tried. He smiled, sort of. “Yes she did”, he said. He didn’t say it with any meanness, or self-pity. Just as if it was how it was. Which it was. I opened the front door and we both walked out. The night was yellow-black and humming with the sound of long-haul truckers on the freeway a few blocks over. I walked him to his car. I was trying to think of something to say. Something that said sorry and thanks and that I understand but not really, and that I hoped he got better, but without sounding like I thought he really would. He thought of something to say before I did. “I hope Kylie got something she could use.” I laughed. He laughed too. He was, for everything else, a pretty funny guy. “I’m sure she did”, I said. The laughter slowed down and we both eased back into our normal faces. He looked me in the face again. Outside, under the streetlight, his eyes were somehow even brighter. “She’s right, though.” He had something on his mind and I had nothing to say, so I was happy to just listen. “I’m not the kind of guy you want to have over for dinner. That was the whole reason she had me here, right? I mean, normally when you invite someone to your house it doesn’t qualify as ‘research’, right?” I guess I made some kind of face, though I don’t know which. “It’s okay”, he said. “I knew it going in. If I had a problem with it, I wouldn’t have come.” If there were any poetry in nature, a shadow would have crossed his face just then. But instead it was just the pixelated yellow light of the street lamp, steady and false. “I’m not… normal”, he said, and even the way he breathed was enough for me to know there were realms of pain some people are born into and I was not. He made me feel grateful I wasn’t him. But that wasn’t the kind of thing people want to hear you say. “Ah, what’s normal?” I said. He didn’t miss a beat. “Not being afraid of raping children when someone invites you to their house for dinner.” Neither of us were quite ready - or at least sure if the other one was quite ready - to laugh at that one. “Yeah”, I said. And then, a few seconds later, “Yeah.” He looked straight into the closest street lamp. “People shouldn’t have to know. They think that knowing will help. But it doesn’t help. It isn’t like carrying a bunch of heavy bags, where they can take a few off you and then you have less to carry. It’s like - lying under a truck. If someone else comes and lies down next to me, it’s not like I’m going to be any less crushed. So they might as well not bother.” I stepped closer so that I could see him front on. His eyes were closed and his face was smeared with yellow light. “So… What are we meant to do then?” I asked. “Just stand there and watch it and - do nothing?” He opened his eyes. “No”, he said, and something beeped. He opened the door of his car. “Just… don’t watch.” And he got in and started the car and drove away. Just like that.
I locked the front door and went up to Tate’s room. There was a red mark under his mouth, but he was fine. It couldn’t have been that bad. He’d gone to sleep, anyway. Kylie was curled up behind him in his bed, still wearing her clothes. I knew tomorrow morning was going to be rough. I went back downstairs. I poured myself a scotch and sat in my chair. I didn’t bother turning the lights on. I thought about watching TV. But I was in a mood I didn’t recognise and I kind of wanted to just sit with it. I clicked the thing on the side of the chair and it jerked me backwards like an astronaut waiting for take-off. The ceiling took on the moonlight that bled in over the tops of the curtain rods and spread it across its surface like an upside down ocean. It glowed – not enough to be annoying, but enough to make me feel like I was seeing things I shouldn’t be seeing, things that thought they could hide from me in the dark. Along the top of a framed photo of Kylie holding Tate the day he was born there was a shiny layer of dust, invisible in the daylight. A bug rested on the empty guitar holder screwed into the wall. I leaned back so that the ceiling took up my entire view. It was like white blindness; just one endless, infinite white with no middle, no size, no scale. It was like when you look up on a starless night and have no way of knowing how enormous what you’re looking at might be. Only tonight it was all stars and no sky. I drifted around like that for a while, lost in the white. The longer I looked at it, the bigger it got, the smaller I felt. I forgot it was my ceiling I was looking at. I just knew the white was rushing outward, expanding faster than I could handle, and the more white there was the less there must have been of me. The air felt thin, like at the top of a mountain. I could feel my pulse in my wrists. And then I saw it. The tiny black smear, the shadow puppet Kim had been watching while he talked. In the ceiling moonglow it could have been an upside-down umbrella, or maybe a letter from a foreign alphabet. At first the shape looked vague, blurry. But when I looked closer at the edges it was possible to find the exact point where the shape stopped and the white began. I traced the outline of the shape until I forgot where I started and started again from where I was. I found the places where it was lightest and where it was darkest. Beyond the edges, the white was still rushing outward, doubling and redoubling into empty space. I clung to the shadow puppet like a raft in an endless, endless ocean.