I met Silas in a bar called The Trickster. He was the Joker. I was the Queen of Hearts. He ordered schnapps and showed me how to drop the dram of liquor (glass and all) into my beer. The oily substance swam between the bubbles like a ribbon lifted and buoyed in a breeze. Peppermint stippled my tongue.
The barmen played tricks, shuffling and sorting cards. I laughed, enjoying everything. When we stepped down from our bar stools, Silas told me he thought I’d be taller. I could tell he was pleased, really pleased. I didn’t say anything, just smiled a deep, happy smile.
I swallowed my first tab of acid with Silas. He showed me the dot of paper with a tiny picture of a dragon on it. He was holding it out on his fingertip. I could see it but what fascinated me were the grooves of his skin slewing sideways like a topographical map showing mountainous terrane. I looked under his cowboy hat into his shining eyes and guided his finger to my mouth. We walked through the snow our feet disappearing into its pavlova plume. Flakes fell weightlessly from the sky and, with our faces up, the floating snow anointed our foreheads. All around us the world played a silent aria. We twirled between silver birches our arms outstretched, our eyes seeing diamonds.
In his house – a small sharply-gabled timber place painted in deep warm colours – we looked out his small windows through crystals and coloured glass. We took off our clothes and kissed one another’s nooks and crannies. At the end of the afternoon we submitted to temptation and he told me he felt like he’d been to Australia. I giggled and rolled off his tummy, but I’d fallen in love with him then and sometime later I wondered what people did when they wanted to be with someone who lived on the opposite side of the world. I wrote to my parents about other things – there were other things – and luxuriated in the misconception I had plenty of time.
I met Silas’s friends. They were, he told me, the three most important people in his life. Different, but close as close, they were like a liquorish all-sort. The most striking one, or I should say the one that struck me the most, was Harley. He was a jocose, rowdy man, a little ursine to the eye with red sideburns and a half-grown beard. He was an outdoor educator; a schoolteacher that looked like a troublemaker. He owned a huge ramshackle house and the whole of the upper floor was his bedroom. At first I was timid in his company; he seemed so brazen to a good-girl. Even kindnesses did not soften me until he leaned towards me one night and said, ‘If you ever need anything, help, anything, be sure you come and ask.’
Gratitude rose in me. ‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘Really, thanks.’
Now when I think about Harley he probably would have been the man for me, but back then he was too much man for my sensibilities. I was a girl, a young girl with a view about what a boyfriend looked like. With his clean-cut athletic body, his square-chinned handsomeness, Silas fitted. He was the classic, innocuous good-looking young man.
Downstairs in Harley’s house was another of Silas’s friends, a Dutch woman named Hilda who was the only one to become what resembled a friend, to me. She had a quick manner, decisive and a perpetually red face plus blond hair that shone metallically in certain lights. We’d sit in her kitchen drinking scalding tea and dreaming up ways to make money: grow a crop, write a bestseller, rob a bank – conjecture we’d always debunk by the end of several emptied pots. She was a stranger in the country too, a stranger waiting on news to tell her if she could stay
The final person of the foursome was Bettina. She’d been away in Mexico when I met Silas, importing goods for her business. Silas introduced us at a parade; in fact, at the exact moment the brass band clanged and blew its way past us. His words submerged into the clashing, never to resurface again. It was a magician’s trick, one I should have seen as a sign, as the ultimate introduction-disappearance. Still, as if to fix the day indelibly in my mind, I must have given Bettina my camera because I have pictures of Silas and myself on the street – odd shots of me looking one way and him the other. He wasn’t happy, a thousand explosive atoms of negativity coming out of him. When Bettina went off to buy waffles for all of us, I asked him if anything was wrong.
‘No,’ he said, his eyes kicking sideways.
My chin crimped as I employed fortitude. Bettina, a Spanish girl with the smoothest milk-chocolate skin and the prettiest almond-shaped eyes, came towards us with the waffles. Silas was all smiles and warm replies as, kicking his good looks back, he took his waffle from her. We stood, sharing a portion of maple syrup. His mood had passed perhaps, but even as the thought formed, he slid his eyes – more private than a nod – across at mine. They were mean, delivering a strychnine threat.
Now that I’m older, more indomitable, I wish I’d done something that day, something to circumvent the situation. Even though my heart was thrashing about, I should have said something, taken some action. Instead what I did was descend into a state of impotent complicity. Everything tightened. Oxygen thinned. I did what most do in a position of powerlessness: I thought it was me and I tried to be good, to do everything just so. It was like being underwater, suffocating despite being thousands of feet above the sea, a drowning on dry land. And when the opportunity to get away was offered I behaved like a moribund imbecile and didn’t take it up.
‘What are you doing later?’ The question, asked easily before, was loaded.
‘Nothing, got an early morning tomorrow. Have to unpack the truck, pick up scaffolding.’
‘Can I come over?’
There was a pause and I thought he wasn’t going to say anything. I really thought he might have ended it there. But at the last minute he nodded, cranked open his well-defined lips. ‘If you want.’
I left him and Bettina on the main road and went a block south to the motel where I worked and lived. In the open courtyard at the back of the place I stared at the steam rising from the Jacuzzi. When it snowed, which it wasn’t, the heat from the water drifted up to melt the snow, expunge it into nothingness before it landed. When people sat in it, when it was snowing, snow gathered on their heads.
I stood staring into the water. Silas had cut out my heart out and run off with it, leaving me to take care of myself with no ability to move because without a heart the blood ceases to flow, the muscles don’t respond, the brain is robbed of its thinking power. Only the automatic nervous system operates. My lungs kept breathing.
When I realised my knees were throbbing I took myself to bed. Waking late, the thought of Silas and Bettina cuddled up together unleashing a toxic heaviness into my system, I lay, my eyes fixed open in the small staff quarters I shared with five others. I knew I wouldn’t go back to sleep, so I got up, walked over there, let myself in with a key he kept stashed between two garden rocks on the stoop. Silas was alone and I slid in beside him, lay awake with a pounding heart trying to be as thin and un-intrusive as possible.
Silas told me he loved me. We were in a bar called The Side Door. A woman played harsh cords on her guitar and sung cruel disgruntled lyrics, her voice carping up and her arm striking the strings in an off-beat clash. I nearly missed it but my head swung around from the performer and our eyes locked. Mine, in that moment, were impartial. But after, soon after, I couldn’t help but smile and we kissed, a long smooth salty kiss under the lavish call of the guitarist and the fat lights of the small bar.
‘Will you stay?’ he asked, his dark eyes dipping into my body, stirring my blood. ‘Here in the States. I’ve realised I want you to.’
I didn’t answer because the question was folding in me like meringue on a lemon tart. For the rest of the night I stayed wrapped in my comfort. The morning appeared and news rattled in my mail. My mother was effusive. I’d been accepted into university. A reason to return home, or a hurdle to run around? Jumping had never been my forte, not a strong suit in the family – determination, now that was another matter. I’d write to Mum and Dad, explain things to them. That I’d met someone. That I was staying. That I knew the necessary steps I had to take to obtain a further visa. I did this, wrote my excuses and descriptions home. My letter showed an emotionality that was underpinned by strength. It wasn’t crafted, just my natural flow. Naivety does that, lends itself to certainty, mixes to create conviction as dense as cured concrete.
The day we planned to go to the immigration office, the snow was wet and drove in hard like sleet. The sky was grey and thunderous. Huge groins of ruffled cloud rolled in. I stood on the pavement waiting for Silas’s frowning Ford 100 to rocket towards me. Under layers of clothing I found my wristwatch. He was fifteen minutes late.
When forty-five minutes had passed I walked in a hot daze towards his cottage. I knew he wasn’t there before I knocked, but I stood looking up at his window anyway. I walked to Harley’s and Hilda’s telling myself he might be there. But really I went because of the storm in the sky and in me. I didn’t want to be stranded in the barracks of my motel-employee bunkhouse. Hilda wasn’t home, but Harley could hear my knock and opened his upstairs window.
‘There’s a few of us playing truant,’ he called. ‘Come up.’
Upstairs I found four or five people smoking joints and lounging on the furniture. He found me a spot next to him. We watched a movie – an old cowboy flick in which men hop confidently on horses and one woman is a damsel swinging between distress and truculence. Hilda came home and I squeezed myself out of Harley’s room to find her downstairs. She smiled her big smile and we drank herbal tea. I remember the way she said herbal in her Dutch accent without an h. The dirty rain came in through the open windows. That’s the way she lived. Not cosy.
‘Silas is immature,’ she said. ‘Even though you’re younger, you’re more grown-up. You need to think about that before you stay here for him.’
My heart was not so much cut out that night as broken, inside me still, but snapped in half, all splintery like a piece of busted timber. I walked home. On the way I rang my parents from a phone booth and woke them from a deep sleep. I was crying when I hung up, half from home-sickness, half from failure.
On the footpath beside the phone, I looked across the view of the Rocky Mountains. The sky was calmer and boasted a deep robust hue. It was still. The storm had not so much moved-on as receded to a higher place. I watched it, tears balancing in my eyes, looking, searching, but I couldn’t find one star showing though the layers of cloud. There was nothing other than distant ruffled darkness.