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Jack Was Here
Amber was already there when I walked in. She always had a habit of arriving fifteen minutes early to any given appointment, and this evening was no exception. Her text had lit up my phone at eleven forty-five on a Tuesday night. It was a strange time to reach out to me. The last time I had spoken to her she had concluded the conversation by calling me a pathetic asshole, and telling me never to contact her again. It was a rare moment of articulation for all the things she wanted out of life. Amber had never been the type of girl to scream her expectations in your face. For her, it was just a matter of quietly waiting and quietly wanting as life turned into something that she had never hoped for.
The text had invited me to dinner, which was unusual. It was polite, direct, and clear about what it wanted. These were qualities she had never managed to master in our time together. I remember shouting at her once that she couldn't keep expecting me to understand what she wanted if she didn't tell me what it was. Her quiet reply was that there were some things a person shouldn't have to ask for.
Maybe she'd gotten better at asking over the past two years. Maybe I'd gotten better at listening. Whatever the circumstances, here I was. There was something she had to say and there was something I had to know. Peering through the glass at the front of the restaurant, I had to wonder if either of us had worked out exactly what that something was just yet. She sat alone in the corner, looking blonde and pretty in a predictable way. The years had started to take a little off, but she was still beautiful. For some reason, I was as mad as hell.
I stood and looked at her and smoked the rest of my cigarette in the cold evening. It was winter in Melbourne, and the rain had blasted the road black and sparkling clean under the streetlights. A tram groaned around the corner and I thought for a moment of getting on it. Leaving her sitting there until she worked out I wasn't coming that night or any other like it. After a while, I went in.
Amber stood up as I walked over and gave me a weak smile. I had to stand next to the table and greet her like we were on a date. The worst part was when she kissed me on the cheek. She pressed her lips up against my six-day stubble and I remembered exactly why we didn't see each other anymore.
"Hey," she said. She held onto me for a moment after the kiss. Kept my elbows cupped in her palms and looked right at me. I wanted to turn away.
We sat down and I sipped my water. Amber waved away the waitress when she approached. I knew why she'd chosen this restaurant. A public place- somewhere I was unlikely to make a scene.
"Thanks for coming out, Hugh."
"That's alright. Can't say I was expecting to hear from you. Our last conversation wasn't exactly pleasant."
She looked a little pained at the recollection.
"I know. It was ... a difficult time."
"You're telling me. You had a lot to say."
"Let's not talk about it."
"If you say so."
There was a little wedge of napkins in a holder in the centre of the table. Just the thing for when she started crying, which I knew she would at some point. The conversation was already heading in that direction. I wanted to smoke, so I did. Lighting up in a nice restaurant was exactly the sort of thing that would have provoked a look or comment back when we were together. After a while I'd stopped, because having a happy girlfriend was more important than having a cigarette after dinner.
I knew she didn't like it, but I smoked anyway. That cigarette told a sad tale. It spoke in stinking clouds as I worked on it. See, it said. You didn't fix me.
She kept trying to be nice.
"How are you getting on, Hugh?"
"Are you working?"
"Nope. I'm on the government teat, now. Almost as much money and none of the work."
She gave me a little smile. "That doesn't sound too bad?"
"It's pretty boring."
"You ever think of going back to uni?"
"I always thought you had a good brain. You should think about it, you know? Might be better than sitting around in front of the television all day."
I chewed on my filter and motioned to the waiter for a beer. I was trying really hard to be decent. I don't know why her insistent kindness was making me so angry. I wished she could have just seen what everybody else seemed to find so obvious about me.
"Thanks for the advice. How's your job going?"
She was an advertising executive. Something with computers and the media.
"Oh, it's okay. I got a promotion back in march. A bit of extra cash."
"That must be nice."
She hears my tone and leaves it there.
"How's Adam?" I ask.
Adam. Adam is my replacement. Adam appeared on the scene with a suspiciously short interlude between the dissolution of our own engagement and the beginning of their relationship. I don't think she was cheating on me- at least not with her body. I do think she had Adam all measured up to size by the time she broke it off with me. He was perfect. Adam ticked every box that I did not.
A few months after she left me I'd tracked him down on facebook and scrolled through his pictures. Adam is a big man with small eyes. He likes football and going to the horse races. He's shorter, uglier, balder. If I put any heat on Adam, he would melt like soft butter on warm bread. It would be so easy to smash him into a thousand pieces. I'd played out the scene in my head again and again.
I never did that. I knew it wasn't his fault. After a while, I worked out why looking at him made me so angry. He was clearly so much less than I was in every way, yet at the end of the day he'd turned out to be a better option. The worst part was that Amber knew it more than anyone.
"I wanted to tell you before you saw it on facebook."
"Tell me what?"
"We're engaged. Adam asked me to marry him. I said yes."
My beer arrived at exactly the wrong moment and I drank about half of it with the first swallow. It went down way too fast. I didn't care.
"I guess congratulations are in order. Shall we get some champagne?"
"Where's the ring? Go on, I want to see it. Bet it's better than the one I got you. I should remind you, Amber, that I followed the golden rule of engagement rings and spent a full three month's salary on it. I thought it was very nice. You did a pretty good job of pretending you liked it too."
"I did like it. I loved it."
Now she's starting to cry. She's doing it quietly, in a practiced way.
"So go on, give me a look."
"I didn't wear it."
"Well, I'm not sure how Adam would feel about that."
She shook her head, choked on her words.
"He doesn't know that I'm here."
I stubbed out my cigarette with enough force that it shook the glasses on the table. If the rest of the restaurant wasn't already looking at me, then they were now.
"I don't know why you have to be so cruel."
Yeah. Of course. I was always the asshole in any given situation. My golden excuse had run its course and there was nothing left at that table except me and my busted leg and a beautiful girl that had once loved me.
"You gave up on me," I said.
"That's not fair."
"You're right. It's not fair. But you gave up on me, Amber."
"No. No. That's not fair. I tried. I tried so hard, you don't understand. All those years, all I ever wanted was to be the girl that you needed. To help you get better, Hugh. It just never happened. I gave it a year, and then another year, and it was just the same as it was before. I always believed you could get better. That you were more than somebody who just sat on the couch and chain-smoked and watched television. I thought you were more than that. But after a while I worked out that I was the only one who believed in you. It was just me. I was the only one. And I couldn't believe for everybody, Hugh. I couldn't. I couldn't keep sitting and waiting for it to get better."
There was a long moment of silence after she said that. In that silence I worked out what the purpose of this meeting was. She was here to explain why she could never see me again. Leaving it at screamed accusations was untidy. There was a bloody stump to tourniquet. The person she was explaining all of this to was herself. Amber thought that if she said it all out loud, it might suddenly be true.
"I always thought you were better than that, Hugh. Ten foot tall and bulletproof. I thought you were stronger."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you."
"Nobody could ever be more sorry than me."
I gave myself the final condolence that I always brought out in moments like those. Under the spotlight, I could always remind myself that they didn't understand. That there is a difference between people like me, and people like her. The big hole in the centre of my life that everything seems to fall into sooner or later. Amber got too close, and it nearly swallowed her up.
The only decent action at that point was to leave. She'd said it all, and I could only hope that it sounded true to her. Amber folded her hands on her lap and looked at me, composed through the tears. In that moment I knew that the kindest thing I could do for her was to disappear completely.
So I reached down, I took her hand, I gave it a little squeeze and I said goodbye. Then I turned and walked out of the restaurant without looking back.CHAPTER 2
When they told me I'd have somebody new, I wasn't surprised. They like to rotate new therapists onto difficult cases like mine, and over the last ten visits to the clinic I had been seen by no less than four different people. The last had been an Indian kid, who insisted on getting all Freudian and asking me about my father. I didn't like him- he had the idea in his head that a pair of half-moon glasses and a bowtie would somehow magically compensate for the fact that he was at least five years younger than me.
When you've spent enough time in hospital, and I have, you can get a little tired of doctors and psychiatrists. They've got this special walk. It's like they imagine their footsteps booming out over the landscape and all the little knee-height nurses and patients gaping up at them with wide eyes. Finally, the doctor is here! We can all collapse in relief now.
The only thing worse than a doctor is a medical student, or an intern, or whatever they call themselves. I couldn't help myself from messing with that Indian kid. The way he was giving me Sigmund's 20-point daddy issues test was a pretty clear indication that he assumed simply because I was a patient at a veterans hospital I had never opened and read a book from beginning to end. His tone was so supercilious that I started slotting in decoy answers to raise his heart-rate. I told him I never thought about my father. I hadn't seen him since the day I finally beat him at tennis and left home in celebration as he ripped the wallpaper down and screamed in defeat. The only time that he ever popped into my mind was directly before orgasm or when I was taking my morning shit. I had that kid shivering with excitement by the end of the session. It passed the time.
I got bored. I'd been coming to those sessions for the past six years, and the questions were always the same. The way they treated us was a joke. Somewhere between stupid and dangerous. Shuffle us in every fortnight, check that we haven't started planning a massacre, or less urgent, a suicide, and slot us full of the pills that made us fat and slow and put our junk into neutral for six months at a time. It was enough to drive you crazy if you weren't already.
When my number came up, I approached reception. The lady behind the counter was the most consistent professional in the place. She had a smile for me that was mostly genuine.
"Hi, Hugh. Look, we're sorry to do this to you but because of a scheduling conflict you won't be able to see Doctor Singh again today."
I think I can count that as a rare victory.
"I realise we've lacked consistency over the past few months. Ideally, you should be seeing the same therapist every time you come here."
"Ideally," I conceded. "Who have you got for me today?"
"Her name is Doctor Lisa Nguyen. She's relatively new to the hospital, but hopefully she'll be able to stay with your case for the next few months. She's ready to see you now in suite three."
The thing that gets me about this shuffle of professionals is that there is not one who has done anything apart from repeat my problems back to me like they're discovering the lightbulb. It makes me wonder about the science behind it sometimes. Listen and repeat. Expect it all to become clear when you hear it from a mouth that is not your own. That might be a ray of light for some people, exactly what they need. Hearing my own problems has never been any revelation to me. I could never work out whose benefit it lead to, repeating different versions of the same fucking questions every fortnight. Was it an excuse to sedate us? Or maybe on a more basic level, it gave us an opportunity to remind ourselves of why our lives had turned out like this. Talking about blood and dust and IEDs again and again was the world's best excuse to sit on your couch and watch daytime television for a solid decade.
Lisa Nguyen looked about fifteen. Vietnamese extraction with a thick local accent. She looked like a particularly meritorious work experience student who had been allowed, as a special treat, the chance to treat a real-life patient. She got up and shook my hand as I entered the little suite. It was me, Lisa, two comfortable chairs and a panic button.
"Good afternoon, Mister Fitzgerald. Please take a seat."
"I'm Doctor Lisa Nguyen. I'll be managing your case for the foreseeable future. I am sorry about all the mix-up with therapists so far."
"Can I call you Doctor Lisa? I don't think I can remember that last name."
She was a little rattled.
"I ... don't see why not."
It was overly familiar. All of her training says that overly familiar is bad. It also says that she should avoid confrontation in the first session or two with a new patient. The battle of principles took place in her head, and she resolved it with reasonable efficiency.
"So I'm going to start with asking you about your medication. How is the dosage at this stage?"
"Well, it's making me fat. I'm impotent. It takes me about fifteen minutes to take a piss. I haven't cared about anything in a while. So I'd say the dosage is spot on."
This sad little story was entirely bullshit. I'd been depositing my prescriptions in the nearest bin for the past six months, and I'd never felt better. Relatively speaking, anyway. You've got to give them a bit of a moan or they won't believe you're doing as you're told.
"That's concerning to hear. Are these side-effects affecting your personal life in any way?"
"I'm single. You know that women expect your equipment to work, right?"
Even if you've got the best excuse in the world and all the scars to prove it, that's one bit of you they don't want to see an out-of-order sign hanging off. They act all sympathetic for a bit, but after a while they take you back to the shop and ask for their money back.
She shifted uncomfortably in her chair and looked even younger. For a moment I felt bad. She couldn't have been expecting it to turn sour this quickly.
"You mentioned incontinence?"
"It dribbles. Like a leaky tap. I had an uncle who died of prostate cancer. He told me that the moment he knew he was fucked was when he stopped casting an arc."
"That's ... concerning to hear."
She made a little note. Piss dribbling? This was the most fun I'd had in weeks.
"Yep. Concerning is the word."
"Are any of these ... issues affecting your employment or ability to perform your job?"
"Can you stop asking me questions straight from the textbook?"
"Did you even read my file?"
"I'm ... afraid that Doctor Singh didn't mention your job in the notes I received."
"Well. Can't blame you for that. I expect Doctor Singh's notes mainly concern my father and tennis."
She smirked a little at that. I bet that would be an extremely nice smile if she let the rest of it come out. Probably a rule against that, too. Can't smile at the patients. Bad practice.
"Never mind. I'm unemployed. Haven't had a job in about eight months."
"What were you doing before this unemployment?"
"Did you ... enjoy that work?"
"Oh, I loved it. Boring and moronic."
"How are you supporting yourself now?"
She arranged herself in the chair. The serious questions were about to begin.