A reunion of imploding stars

Reunion of the imploding stars

Oliver fidgeted with the collar of his wool blazer.

The spring night was warm and he was beginning to sweat, he wanted to get rid of the thing, hang it over the back of a bar stool,  but couldn’t part from his favourite item of clothing in this dive. He raised his gin and tonic and pointed with it to Rora’s wheelchair. “So how did it happen? Aren’t you going to tell me?”

“Maybe later,” Rora said.

“Why did you come, then? To play a joke on me? Do you think this is funny?”

“Sure, Oliver. I went to a war zone and had my spine broken in three places just so I could come here tonight and play a practical joke on you. You haven’t changed one iota.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that you never mentioned it. It is a fairly major thing to have happened. I think I’m still in shock.”

“Do you want a lie down? Shall I ask the bartender for some water?”

Oliver smiled and pulled up a chair next to her. “Looks like someone else hasn’t changed much either. Who else did you tell?”

“No one. Except for my family and my then boyfriend, who deserted me as soon as I gained consciousness. He said he had family problems, went back to Spain and I never heard from him again. He was frightened. Just like you are now. Stuttering and shifting about, sneaking unbelieving glances at my legs. I know what you are thinking and you know what? I don’t care anymore. I’ve cried it all out. It was a year ago  and you find your ramps and paths and elevators and you use them. You get to where you’re going.”

“I kept your letters. Every single one. Kept them in between some prints we never got around to hanging up. Melanie is not really the art lover.”

“And you read them?“

“Sometimes, when I’m alone. This sound stupid, but I used to wonder about your life: about how fascinating it must be to be you… if you’d have achieved everything if, you know…”

“If what, Oliver?“

“If we’d stayed together. If you’d come with me to Sydney.”

“Ha! You didn’t want me to, remember? You did everything in your power to keep me away. You broke up with me. Then you made up some pathetic story about wanting to find yourself. But I know what I was to you back then: I was like a trophy, like something you’d won at the athletics carnival, bright and shiny, something to show off to your mates and to your parents. Oh yeah, Oliver is doing alright, isn’t he? What a talented boy! Only by the time school was up there was no space left on your shelf, so you just made some.”

“What are you talking about? Look, I was… immature. We were eighteen for Christ’s sake! I didn’t know what I wanted and neither did you. Didn’t you want something more back then? Want to get out of this town and find out for yourself what was out there?”

“I did. And it cost me my legs and almost my sight. But that doesn’t matter now.”

“So why did you write to me?”

“Because, you were there. You’d always just been there. I knew you wouldn’t have moved away, you were too institutionalised for that. And after the accident I was depressed and lonely. I wanted to talk to someone who knew me as I was back then, not for my photography or writing. What a sob story, that was! The tragic story of Rora Khadem, run over by a driverless jeep. As a war correspondent I’d hoped for a better way to make the headlines.”

“And when were you going to tell me about your situation?” Oliver glanced down at Rora’s wheelchair. “You weren’t were you?”

“I didn’t think it was necessary to tell you about…” Rora looked down at her thighs, “about this. I never intended to see you. Don’t pretend you would have said all those things in your letters if you knew you were writing to a paraplegic. Anyway I was going to tell you because I really believed you were going to fly over to Switzerland. I didn’t want to be humiliated a second time by you.” She stubbed the cigarette out on the wheel of her chair. “But I wasn’t the only one keeping a secret. When were you going to tell me about your wife and kids?”

“Eventually. Can I have one of those? Same as we used to smoke behind the agriculture shed.”

“Only $20 more expensive. Listen, Oliver. I didn’t know things would start up again so quickly.”

“You led me on.”

“I did not!”

“Talking about days long gone, like you wanted them back. Now I know why. But I fell for it. You made me think about our time together, how we understood each other and where we understood each other if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, that was it. Thinking with your dick again. You perve. Remember the school ski trip?”

“Don’t get me started. But I know what you must think. I would never have just left my family like that. It hasn’t been working lately between Melanie and me. By lately I mean for several years now. I work 70 hours a week at the firm, I hardly ever see her. I wasn’t happy. Then I receive that first letter from you. I thought it might have been my cousin Peter. He left for Europe a few years back, not really sure where he lives. But even before I unfolded the letter I could see the handwriting and I knew.”

“How is old Melanie, sweetie-pie. Still the same?”

“Oh, you know. She’s spirited, like she was in high school.”

“So still a bitch.”

“With a couple of ‘enhancements’. But she hasn’t changed much and she loves the north shore lifestyle. She’s a member of all the community groups and even baked a caked once for the library fete.”

“Oh, yeah? How was it?”

“Horrible. It looked like a taxi’s hub cab. The other women said that they sold it immediately, which probably meant they threw it out pretty quickly.”

“Why didn’t she come to the reunion?”

“Melanie? At the Sandy Beach class of 1978 reunion party? Can you imagine her here? She’d have to wear a space suit to avoid being contaminated by everyone’s averageness. She didn’t come because she wouldn’t of been able to handle seeing you again. You were always the one to beat. The smartest, the prettiest. She was jealous of your career and when you left to study journalism in London she couldn’t stand it. I was a bit envious too I have to admit.”

“She should have come. She would have got a real kick out of seeing me like this, cooped up like a rolling jack in the box.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I’ll say what I damn want to.”

“What happened over there, Rora?” Oliver asked and Rora fell silent and looked over to the door that led to the main hall. She blinked as if sand had blown into her eyes. A saxophone trilled a melody Oliver recognised but didn’t know the name of, but judging by the cheers and whistles inside, he thought he probably should have. “It’s ok, you don’t have to talk about it.”

“It was early morning, Khafji city. The streets were dead quiet but I remember the sea gulls were already awake, making a racket down at the shore. We’d parked between some trees, just under the water tower. I was with our cameraman, an Egyptian who lived in Chicago when he wasn’t running the gauntlet in the Middle East, a tough old boot with three bullet wounds in one leg – he still managed to beat most of the kids at soccer – and we were talking with our hired guide, Gabir. Gabir was in such a state. ‘Something big is about to happen,’ he said. We didn’t know exactly what but the situation as you might know at that stage was fairly grim – air raids, artillery firing streams of light over the skies and heavy tanks patrolling the streets like the dinosaurs were back in town. But that morning was still. We’d gotten into the city fairly easily on false documents, I don’t exactly look like a westerner although my Persian is like a that of a 12 year-old. Getting out however was another problem. All the roads out were blocked and the port was teeming with soldiers. The plan was to somehow make it to the industrial area, where Gabir said he knew a man who had boats and would take us along the coast to Bahrain.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Oliver said.

Rora nodded and continued: “The industrial estate wasn’t far away and there was an even chance of arriving there without any trouble. So we drove for a while, slowly, since the roads had been eaten up and didn’t see any one or any thing for about a kilometre. When we reached the bridge though there was a group of cars, civilian and military. Men stood on the side of the road smoking and arguing with each other, pointing at the cars. I think there’d been an accident, I’m still not sure of the details, but they asked us to get out. Some military hero then asked us what we were doing in the area and wanted to see our papers. I said I’d go back and get them. I just wanted to get out of there. I would have preferred to be stuck under a barrel during a rocket attack than being the only woman among a group of angry Arabs – not my idea of fun. I think I was just at our car or was about to open the door when something roared from the direction we’d just driven from, a black civ vehicle. Top speed. It rammed into the back of our car, sending it over and pinning me under it. I would have been killed if I hadn’t scrambled away in time but the cabin caught my legs and I was forced to the ground. That’s all I remember.”

“Holy shit.”

“Something like that. They told me when I regained consciousness, before, mind you, they told me I’d never walk again, that it was a failed bombing attempt. Someone had fixed the car with explosives to clear the bridge. Nice plan, if it had worked and, of course, we weren’t there.”

“And the others? The Egyptian?”

“Arrested. I heard he got out though and is back in the States but I haven’t been in touch with him. Gabir is dead.”

“I can’t believe it, Rora. I’m so sorry.”

“I can’t believe it either, Oliver. But every morning I get up I have to. When the nightmares don’t remind me, the fact that I’ve pissed the bed does. And that I can’t get up to go to the toilet anymore. That’s a bit of a drag.”

“If you’re trying to be funny, now is the wrong time.”

“It is a bit heavy, I know. But I got over it, I’m sure it won’t take long for you too.”

“Rora,” Oliver put his hand on her shoulder. She felt bony yet yielding, as if her body were a composition of plasticine and rubber which he could compress into a ball. “What do we do now?”

“Get another drink! I heard Harry Anderson is behind the bar pouring tequila shots. Wow, that’s an episode of déjà-vu.”

“I mean, where do we take it from here, you and I?”

“We don’t Oliver. Don’t try to fool me or yourself. There will never be an ‘us’ again. You will go back to your wife, tell her that you love her and then go to work just like you’ve done for the past fifteen years. You will wash your car on the weekends, collect your limited edition prints, go sailing with your mates and work on your pension scheme. You have a good life, enjoy it.”

“It sounds rather boring when you say it like that. And you think it’s the good life? I always thought I wanted yours. When I read your letters, your articles, I wanted to be there with you and, this sounds stupid, I wanted to protect you.”

“I said a good life not the good life. And there’s not much you could have protected me from. I’ve seen some awful things, stuck my head in a few holes I shouldn’t have and came out looking worse for it, but the world is not such a bad place you know, Oliver.” Rora unlocked her wheels and began rolling her chair down the corridor to the main hall. “Aren’t you coming for a dance?”

“Sure, I’ll catch up with you.” Oliver leant back and let his shoulders hunch. Whatever vague air of festivity he had flirted with  at the beginning of the evening had now deserted the room and had left him feeling brittle and white. From inside the hall cries of drunken men and women saluted Rora, glasses chinked in unison, a balloon popped and the music reared up to the thumping tempo of some 80s classic. It was good to have seen most of them again, the ones who idolised him, the ones who had explored the stage and the cracks of that small town with him, fed on excitement and ignorance of the future, without termination and generating the memories that would one day cause them to laugh or cry in shame or babble apologetically into each others’ arms. How these memories have been distorted. Were they even true? Had Rora, that frail woman sitting in an aluminium chair, been real? Was she the same teenage girl with whom he’d slept, swam, drunk coffee and wine and smoked for the first time? It’s like the seeing light from an imploding star, he thought, seen from a million light years away. Oh, what does it matter! Oliver raised his hand to finish the gin and tonic and saw that a nugget of cigarette ash had fallen on the sleeve of his blazer. He stared at, not thinking, and tried to breathe it away using just his nostrils but the thing had clasped itself to the woollen fibres and refused to be expelled.

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