by Steve Tait
Backed up in a bubble, a smoking dome, anxious hands and cigarettes. Desperate drags, never enough, the final soldier glowing down to nothing. Lighters run through fingers, elbows bend, fingers tap. Incriminating sandpits full of butts.
I play in the sand and offer a wry smile. My life in code: full of butts and maybes. All the muffled questions, dreams so long repressed. I exhale and wonder, heavy, stale and dulled, just where I might have got to had life not interfered.
“Nice to see a smile,” says the man with bloodshot eyes, “Off on a trip then, is it?”
A smile despite the trip, I want to tell him, but look away instead. Anxious men and women avoid my vacant look, furrowed brows and twitching hands of those with flights to catch. All share the same discomfort: the stress of expectation, the penance before the thrills, get through the flight and then the vacation really starts, or so the story goes.
I look back at Mr. Butt-holder. I’ll do a deal, I want to say. Give you all my trips for that one final escape.
He sees my look, reads it as an invitation. “So where you headed?” goes the question, talk and tobacco calming fraying nerves.
“Hong Kong,” I mumble quietly.
“Heard it’s wild,” he wants to tell me, “chock-full of people, all going hell for leather. A city that never…”
“Work.” A word to shut him down. Can’t help it. His single, shallow assumption, so painful in its ignorance, sends glowing embers through my heart. “It’s work, just work. 61 hours. Meetings. Deals, dinners, dollars, and trade-offs.” A life that’s swallowed me whole.
“Oh,” he says, deflated.
I consider hitting him with the rest of it but don’t trust myself. Hong Kong and then Guangzhou, Shanghai, and back to Sydney. A merry-go-round for suits, silk ties at the ready, air-conditioned lounges, dimly lit bars. Handshakes, backslaps, and forced laughed, the real currency of the trip. I want to reach for companions throat yell the sullied truth into his face: overweight and overtired, going nowhere faster than the rest. I take a drag of another smoke and let my head fall back against the glass wall.
“Bet you’d rather be home then,” says he of the smoking fingers, eyebrows raised in hope.
Why dash his hopes? “Yeah. Course,” I say, embarrassed by my lie.
The moment slings me forward, a week from now in Sydney. Two days lost in hotel foyers then off to war I go.
Aging parents, Sunday lunches. A lifetime institution, rotten to the core. Roasted meat and fireworks, a ritual of hurt. I shake my head at the thought of it as I make my way to the gate. By the time I board the plane, the memories invade me, shivers rustling down my spine.
“Got the roast on,” she says, sleeves rolled up and sweating.
Mouth open to respond, Dad’s hand slaps me on the back. “How about a beer, old son?” he says with false bravado. Legs astride, fingers digging into my shoulder, trying to be my mate.
“Just go easy on him, Ron. Why offer the boy a beer?” She wipes her hands on the tea towel, throws it on the table. It’s a declaration of intent, a sign of what’s to come. “Look at the boy, why don’t you? You think he needs the extra calories?”
“Let the boy alone, Pamela. We don’t see him every day.”
“Almost every Sunday.” I say it as a prisoner, one whose fate is sealed.
“Just have a God damn beer,” he says, as he forces it into my hand.
Mum sees that as her opening, her moment to attack. “Been out of sorts for weeks, he has. Bear with a sore head is what he is.”
Accusations designed to wound. “Oh, can’t you give it a break, woman?”
“Just saying is all. The Widdowson’s house next door. He thinks they’re going to build, add a second storey.”
“I bloody well know it. Destroy the view it will.”
She checks the roast again, shakes the pot of beans. “It’s all in his mind, it is. Hasn’t even bothered to ask old Reg. They don’t talk these days, you see.”
“Don’t worry about me, I know what’s what. I seen the builders.” He’s at the table, chugging his beer, legs and arms well spread. He’s still got a point to prove. “I keep my eyes open, that’s all.”
“He snoops,” she says, “then comes to these crazy conclusions.”
He’s standing now, puffed up chest and all. “Least I don’t believe everything I see on that damn TV.”
“Nothing wrong with watching the news.”
It’s getting out of control, as it always does. Daggers back and forth. Vicious barbs designed to wound and maim. I sit and keep my head down, the DMZ runs through me. Grenades across the kitchen, yet another skirmish. The hits and misses of a lifetime, no quarter asked nor given.
I sit, refusing to say a word. I’ve taken that route too often. With snipers either side, I’ve been bloodied once too often. So I chew through the roast, tough and dry and lifeless. Cooked with a grizzled determination, no half measures allowed.
“These Asians,” she says, apropos of nothing. “Everything cooked in seconds. Seen it on TV. Surprised they survive. The unclean meat, the dirt, the rats. They should all be dropping like flies.”
Dad assumes the high ground. “Your mother doesn’t approve of much of anything cooked for under an hour, and nothing cooked by Asians.”
Knife and fork set carefully down, she comes back swinging. “Look who’s talking,” she says. “You almost had a fit when the Arabs moved in on the corner.”
“Live and let live,” says Dad, and I wish for once he would believe it. He waves his fork, a point to make. “They’ve got their land and we’ve got ours. Simple as that.”
I run for the door feeling dirty, shit stains down my brain. I send her a kiss, him a handshake, playing man, thinking boy, dreaming life as someone else.
The in-flight announcements bring me back to my latest reality, just as futile as the other. There’s so much of me running nowhere, hoping for a break, stuck tight in a deadly holding pattern. It’s just such a long way down. I’m off the plane, in the terminal, transfer, duty free. Two hour stopover. Welcome to Singapore, says the sign, as if it makes a difference. I drift around in circles, finally stagger to the bubble. I sit and smoke and close my eyes, hear the call for boarding. Do as I’m told, no thought, no feeling, numb to life’s adventure.
Look up, departures, a board of yellow letters. I’m half-way there; half-way to nowhere. Deadened, moving. To the gate, with boarding pass, passport, held loosely in my hand. Hold them out to the woman, make-up and perfume. Check my life in barcodes.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m here.”
“Your destination, sir. Not here. Further down,” she says while pointing. “Just keep going. You’re half way there.”
“Yes, yes. Half way. So sad – I’m half way there already.”
“No,” she says, concern peeking through the make-up, “down there, down there.”
“Yes, I know. Half way down to nowhere.”
“To your gate, sir. Half way there.”
I move off slowly, boarding pass fluttering to the ground. Half way? No, not really. But on my way at last. To nowhere, to anywhere. Exit. Follow the signs. To somewhere. No departure, not for me. I’ll walk. And find my own way.
Without. Being taken. For a ride.
Editor’s Note on Backed up in a Bubble:
Backed up in a Bubble is not Steve Tait’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are:
- Moving was published in the inaugural issue of Eastlit in December 2012.
- Finding a Vein was in Eastlit February 2013.
- A Few Thin Jackets appeared in the August 2013 issue.
- Busy it Up featured in Eastlit January 2014.
- The Breeze was in Eastlit September 2014.
- Cheese and Crackers featured in Eastlit February 2015.