By Susan Elliot and Rachel Kleinsman
At the age of eleven, ten toes in the river brought a girl to life.
The sun had faded the biro ink she’d left on her hand, tiny spiral designs and repetitions of her name etched into her skin. At lunchtime, she was hanging upside down from the jungle gym, letting the blood drain to her face until her feet were cold and her eyes felt like they were starting to bulge out of their sockets. She’d watched a sky of grass poke out in tufts from the rubber playground matting, and wanted to go to the river.
She didn’t even feel guilty about wagging. There had been nothing to it, she just walked out of the front gates and down the main road in broad daylight, not looking back once. It must have been the right thing to do, because walking down the main road, cars just zoomed by and strangers walked past without stopping to ask if she was ok, or why she wasn’t in school. Did you know that a single act of rebellion can make a girl invisible? The feeling rushed through her like a swipe of bright colour.
It was any Tuesday, and with her school jersey tied around her waist and the straps of her backpack pulled tight, she found a clearing in the bush and followed it to the water.
There were two new facts she had to consider this afternoon, the first being the coldness of the water, which she had never before welcomed, and the second the dangerous, thrilling charge of being alone. As she turned over the newness of being there, the girl held these in front of her like punctuation marks. An exclamation mark of coldness, followed by a question mark of solitude. Because a question should always precede its explanation, these two were the wrong way around, and she understood that the conditions of her being there, the precise shape of this afternoon, were a restructuring of her own doing. It was an element which would shine its weird light through her body for moments and years to come. How inconceivable it seemed that this part of the river was new; that these particles of passing water had never flowed here before.
The skin under the arches of her feet was white and unseen, the pre-adolescent underbelly of a girl encased by shoes and sweaty cotton socks. At school, even in summer, they wore clompy Doc Martens which kept everyone’s feet in darkened solitude. She tied the laces of hers up so tightly that her feet ached by the end of the day, and the knot left a red impression when she took them off. Apart from this pressure point, the shoes absorbed each shock and scuff, every beating from the concrete playground so that her feet never knew anything about it. At the river, those shoes sat like strangers on the rock next to her, stinky socks stuffed wetly into them.
The only part of the afternoon which felt transgressive was the water. It screamed into her body with its newness. Each molecule of water pulsated in time with her heart in individual brilliance, and she felt that the outline of her own form was newly visible to the world around her. The unpredictable edges of smooth and jagged rocks cupped the soles of her feet, and it felt gentler than the head rushes she gave herself on the jungle gym. Hanging from the steel frame, she was used to the sky leaking in heavily through her folded knees, and the sensation of it moving through tense stomach muscles and into her head. This afternoon was a reversal. The cold water unfurled parts of her to grow outside themselves, outside herself.
Her feet had been drifting in the river for hundreds of heartbeats. They were no longer seized up with coldness and pain, and were starting to transform into the hide of an underwater creature. Numbness reached out from around her glittery purple toenails, clawing its way up her calves to make her part of the water. She pressed her bum into the cavity of the driftwood seat and pushed her legs out further, so that they were fully extended and she was lying horizontally, the sudden breath of current swaying them further in the downstream direction. Coldness shifted her vision in a new way, so that she was no longer trapped within her eyes by the motions of the world, but looking out to everything around her. She watched the smallest pebbles slipping over each other at the edge of the river, clacking and cracking, occasionally hitting against a piece of wood which she imagined to be one of her bones, or even that tender spot on the soles of her feet. She was impressed by how unrelenting the rocks were. The river took her seriously, throwing all of its weight against her legs.
For a while she concentrated on staring at the sun, kicking her legs back and forth to remind her of the water beneath her, another body in constant transformation. Like the other rules she had broken this afternoon, it helped her to understand. The yellow light made her eyes ache, and she resisted the urge to rub them.
It was only forty heartbeats, but it felt like longer when she finally looked away from the sun, and followed the dark shapes and lines flying from her headache to the downwards current of the river. In the aching aftermath of dizziness and coldness, she wanted to roll over the warm rocks.
She pulled her legs out of the water. Her right wrist glistened and she licked it gently, feeling the downy hair and tasting the cool water which had turned her body.
The girl was apart from the river again, and the outlines of her body settled back into themselves.
The Octopus Trap
Evie swipes back to the last chapter she can remember. She hates reading on her phone. Her eyes wander from the small screen as does her interest. She watches Simon, irritatingly juggling his hacky sacks by the window.
“Hey Evie, how much would you give for a piece of blue sky and five minutes alone on a wooden bench?”
“At this point? My firstborn. Why?”
‘’Seriously.” Simon looks at her. “How much is it worth? Would even you break a rule?”
“Fuck’s sake! We’re stuck inside all day, except for one hour on the roof – with a sky that’s been threatening, only threatening, rain for weeks. Why do you ask?”
“Because some of us could make better use of our time.”
“Waddaya mean Simon? It’s not like you’re writing a novel in your spare time.”
“You’re ridiculous! We’re at the ass-end of Via del Corso. In a city of twisting streets, you’ve booked a hotel on what feels like the Road to Damascus.”
“The ad said, Small, warmly-decorated room, free WiFi. You agreed it was a good deal.”
“Small! There’s barely room for socks; the WiFi only works for an hour a day – if we’re lucky.”
They’ve had this discussion almost daily for three weeks.
Evie inspects her fingers, not looking at Simon. She finds a chipped nail and rummages for a file in her makeup bag.
“How could I know there’d be a lockdown?” The conversation is never over until Simon says it is. “Anyway, I prowled around last night . Aside from the German in 1A, we have almost the whole place to ourselves.”
“Yeah. There’s another woman, Zeta, she’s here at night – leaves in the morning.”
“Does she now? It’s a lockdown Simon – not an open house. Where’s she from, this woman? Where does she go?” Evie is interested, she’s wondering if she should report Zeta for breaching lockdown.
“Not important. She’s got a scooter.”
“You’re allowed to use scooters Evie. Scooters are freedom.”
“Simon, we’re allowed out for one hour a day, to pick up groceries or sit on the roof. No scooters.”
Evie looks curious. “Wait. How do you know her name?”
“Stuff this. I’m going out.”
“Don’t you mean up?”
“No. Out!” Simon grabs his phone and leaves.
Evie sits down on the edge of the bed. Her heart begins to hurt before Simon slams the door. The pain is sharp but familiar, no longer scary. Like an imaginary friend she’s known since childhood.
Sudden Onset Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy. When she’s frightened or sad, her heart changes shape to resemble a takotsubo – an octopus trap. The blood flow lessens, and her heart aches; it seems to spasm. It was life-threatening once, but now there’s medication and, usually, it eases quickly. Since meeting Simon at a party a few months ago and then randomly deciding to travel together, Evie’s had frequent episodes.
Looking out the window, Evie sees Simon smoking, staring across the road at the now deserted house, at its three once blue, faded wooden doors, the tattered curtains on the first floor windows serving no purpose, no longer providing privacy or shelter.
Last week they watched a gang of boys drawing on the doors of the house. Were those cocks or mushrooms? They argued points of reference. Simon said he was, by nature, more familiar with the essence of cock than she would ever be, that the cartoon avians on the other door were obviously references to cock – perhaps also to Banksy. Evie agreed that her experience was limited, but she knows a cock when she sees a cock, and these are obviously mushrooms. As for the birds, sometimes a chicken is just a chicken.
They disagreed about the graffiti on the third door. Evie thought the writing was Cyrillic but she wasn’t positive. Simon was certain, of course, that the writing was Japanese. Watching the boys wield their spray cans filled a normally empty day. Evie was sad when they didn’t return. Simon thought they’d been picked up by the Polizia or worse, the Carabinieri. Either way, the boys weren’t coming back.
Evie feels her heart expanding, as if attempting an escape with each beat. She knows her pills are nearby; she has enough to outlast any game the octopus plays.
Simon finishes another cigarette. Evie starts to get ready for her time on the roof. She thinks about what she will wear – her party dress or a kimono in honour of the Takotsubo’s return? Lipstick maybe.
Her breath is shallow, her heartbeat slow.
Evie decides to wear the black, stretchy trousers with the multitude of pockets, her somehow-sexy white shirt, and her strappy red shoes.
Her heartbeat is uneven, her heart feels lopsided; burdened. She debates whether to take her pills.
Simon isn’t back yet.
She walks to the window. He’s still outside smoking. She wonders how many he’s had. She notices pieces of blue struggling out of the overcast sky, feels the sun on her face for the first time in weeks.
She hears a scooter and hopes it’s the Carabinieri with their black, silver-braided uniforms, their weaponry in easy reach. The scooter stops in front of the hotel and Simon gets on. He comfortably wraps his arms around the woman in front. Evie notices that neither of them wear helmets.
Grabbing her sunhat, Evie climbs the stairs to the roof. She sits with her book, under the now blue sky, on the wooden bench, barely registering the moment when the pain in her heart stops.
The night before Dana went away, I pressed my ear against her chest and formed a seashell against her warm skin. The blood in my face rushed to that one pressed ear. With my free arm, I reached for a pen and a scrap of paper on the floor next to the bed. I closed my eyes to turn the volume of her heartbeat up and up and up. I wanted to write it down, all 5 minutes and 46 seconds of it. As I started to write, I thought my own heart might actually stop out of respect for hers.
Her beat filtered through to my seashell and I didn’t know how to transpose it. I was looking for meaning in her body’s music, but risked compromising the complexity of her sound by relying on quavers and semibreves to express it. Instead, I tapped along with my eyes closed, committing her sound to memory until I fell asleep.
I slept all through the next day, and the one after that. On the third day, her sister entered the apartment to pick up her furniture and knocked me over the head with the leg of a bedside table. Stars formed around my head like a cartoon character. Being awake without hearing her heartbeat gave me tinnitus. I put on her old chenille dressing gown and left the building, pen and paper in my pocket.
I was a drowning musician, pregnant with her beat. Sunshine and bright clouds pushed down threatening the crown of my head. I walked the length of the main road, willing the swoosh of cars into an audible coherence.
I took out my pen and paper. Multi-level encryption is the most robust seven syllables in the English language, so I multi-levelled between Edith Piaf song titles, morse code, and a selection of old computer passwords to transpose the memory of her. Dana on a page, I called it, signing it with a flourish. The music wasn’t all there yet, so I folded up the piece of paper into a tiny square and swallowed it for safekeeping.
Eventually, the spiny outline of Dana’s chorus travelled from the exhaust pipe of a truck past my tonsils and into my oesophagus, daring me to gag, but I couldn’t summon the rest of it. My heart spluttered out of time. I leaned into the open window of a white Nissan stopped at the lights to toot the horn, and recall the first few notes of her heartbeat. The driver closed the window on my arm.
Her memory faded and the road’s riot noise became quiet and meaningless. A dairy across the road was humming louder than the rest, and I went to it.
The dairy was cool inside. As I took in the shelves full of neatly stacked cans and old crackers, the low-level hum I’d heard from outside took on an interesting bass-like quality. I traced the sound to the large ice cream freezer in the middle of the shop, remembering how we used to pick up Trumpets on the way home from a night out. Dana always let me eat the bottom of her cone, with the little nub of chocolate in it. The frosty boy on the front of the freezer winked at me, his tongue out.
I lay down on the floor and slid my hand beneath and along the freezer’s warm metallic underside. Finding a dusty plastic wire, I pinched it. Someone asked if I was ok, and my seashell ear waggled gently towards them in response. I angled my arm further under the freezer.
I pinched the wire tighter until the plastic covering split open, and I felt the warmth of the electric current against my skin. I pressed even tighter imagining the pulsing wire keeping time in that moment – in the always, or at least in the now – until her symphony inside me came back to life. She was gone, but not. I felt her hand through the wire under the dairy freezer, as I hummed the rest of her heartbeat melody.
A Buck Fifty
Last year, when we could still travel, I was at the airport waiting for my flight. I saw a man who looked like my father, walking through the duty-free shops. He was dressed the same as my father might dress; a grey hat, Bogart-like, dipped below one eye, tan trousers a bit baggy in the bottom, and a black jersey. He carried a long raincoat, like the one my mother bought for my father in Vancouver one year. We were there in the autumn; it rained, a downpour, most days, I think around 3 p.m. My father also bought a couple of hat covers; they looked like shower caps, and fit over his hat to protect it in the rain. He said his dad wore them and besides, they were only a buck fifty each. My mother bought a see-through plastic raincoat. They laughed about that; told jokes I didn’t understand – well, not at the time anyway.
As I watched, I was tempted to find out where the man who looked like my father was going. I imagined myself buying a ticket to the same place – because, well you never know. My skin felt suddenly clammy. My heart went out of its usual rhythm. First too fast, and then, too slow. I had an urge to run to the toilets, but what if he left before I returned?
The man who looked like my father walked into the airport bar. He sat, backlit by a big window, at a small table. I could easily make out his profile. Same nose. I followed and sat across the bar from him. He fidgeted, like someone who had smoked in airports, in bars, back in the day. He reached into his pocket, checked his boarding pass, glanced again at his phone and took something from his bag. It was a real book – my father preferred these – not a modern Kindle; but he seemed unable to concentrate; distractedly, almost rhythmically, checking his phone or looking out the window – or maybe it just wasn’t a very good book. The man who looked like my father was wearing those woollen shoes that hipsters wear; I could see the tread on one was worn. I knew his socks would be wrinkled around thin ankles, sliding into the backs of his shoes. A server came over to take his order.
A woman entered the bar. You couldn’t use the word ‘walk’ to describe what she did, it wouldn’t do justice to the choreography. The man who looked like my father looked at her as if she moved to the beat of his heart. She wore high heels, something glinted around her ankle – a bracelet maybe – a black skirt and white shirt. She was so thin that even tucked in, the shirt didn’t spoil the line of her skirt. A canvas carry-on was slung over her shoulder. Her red hair was piled on top of her head, improbably held in place by a single clip. I could tell that if she removed the clip, her hair would tumble to her shoulders; perfectly framing her face. For a moment, I thought she was cabin-crew, but this was no uniform. She arrived at his table just before the drinks.
I was annoyed when the man who wasn’t my father stood and kissed the woman who wasn’t my mother. She didn’t look like someone who would laugh at plastic hat covers, or even buy him a raincoat.
As I watched them talking, holding hands and laughing, I noticed the man who looked like my father had brown eyes, not dark blue like my father’s. His fingers were not as long nor as elegant, and he wasn’t looking at this woman in the goofy way my father always looked at my mother.
When my flight number flashed on the departures screen, I finished my drink and left the bar.
Susan Elliot and Rachel Kleinsman
There were two women in the airport who looked more alike than not. Both looked exhausted, in that dry-eyed, lipstick needs refreshing kind of way. There was a rather large stain on the shirt of the taller woman, and the hem on the trousers of the shorter woman was coming undone, dragging behind her on the lino floor. They were moving in parallel orbits. Travelling solo and killing time in the departure lounge; nearly colliding outside the bathroom; stopping at opposite sides of the pashmina kiosk; sampling heady perfumes in DutyFree.
Boarding now open for Flight QF75.
Grabbing oversized carry-on, coats tucked under arms, tickets and passports at the ready.
Now inviting Aisles 28-40 to board.
They queued with the other passengers, hoping there would be some bulkhead room left by the time they boarded.
On the plane, they stood side by side pushing their bags into the overhead locker. Aisle 32, seats A and C. They nodded, smiled, tucked books and water bottles into the too-small mesh compartments, buckled themselves in.
The first, taller woman was sitting in the window seat. She turned towards her seatmate who removed her headphones, expectantly.
“Let’s hope no one booked the middle seat?”
“More likely we’ll get a snorer. Or a salesman, who knows?”
A loud family spilling over with backpacks squeezed past them in the aisle.
“I’m Dana,” said the shorter, aisle seat woman.
When the doors closed and the middle seat remained empty, they exchanged looks of relief. The cabin crew moved down the aisles with practiced efficiency; closing the overheads, checking bags were properly stowed and seats in painfully-correct upright positions.
“The plane’s packed,” said Evie. “Guess we’ve done well for ourselves.”
The vibrations of engines roared through their seats and armrests as the plane crawled over the tarmac, picking up pace.
Dana placed her left arm on the armrest, and leaned towards her seatmate.
“This might sound weird, but you’re the first person I’ve actually properly talked to.”
“You mean. On this trip?”
“No, since… since I left someone.”
Evie shifted towards Dana, adjusting her mask and unconsciously mirroring Dana’s position on the armrest.
“When did you leave?”
“Two nights ago.”
The sound of the plane picked up to a roar, and they fell back against their seats, submitting to the take-off.
Dana turned to Evie and saw that she was paper-pale; almost the colour of her flight mask, Evie’s eyes seemed to narrow, clenching her jaw, her hand pressed on her heart, as if she was going to be sick.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” she breathed. “I’ll be okay in a bit, I’m always nervous when I fly. It triggers my Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy.”
“Should I call a flight attendant?”
“Don’t worry, it sounds much worse than it is. It’s just – the blood flow to the lower part of my heart slows when I’m stressed or threatened, or in a place I don’t want to be. Actually, my heart changes shape. It looks like an Octopus Trap.”
Evie’s face contorted, winced and her forehead seemed to crease inwards, and Dana thought she looked somehow older, like a different woman. She imagined Evie’s the octopus reaching out across the aisle seat and twisting around her own heart.
“What was that word?”
“Takotsubo. That’s Japanese for Octopus Trap. Luckily it’s only temporary. It passes quickly if I take my meds. Or if I get away from whoever, or whatever is causing it.”
Evie was talking fast, and Dana’s heart started beating faster in time to her words
“You mean like an early warning system when things start to go bad?”
“I guess, though for me it’s not always early enough.” Evie looked like she had a story to tell, but wasn’t sure she should tell it.
“I was stuck in a room with a real jerk during lockdown in Rome.”
“Who was he?”
“Just a guy I met at a party. God knows why but at the time I thought travelling with him was a good idea. Guess I fell for that lanky, funny, bad boy thing. Luckily he took off after a couple of weeks.”
“So you didn’t see him again?”
“Nope. Instant relief from the heartache, even if he did stick me with the tab.”
They were at altitude, and Dana undid her seatbelt as the sign pinged off. Evie took a notebook from her bag, jotted something down and sat back in her seat.
For a minute or so, they sat in silence, the thread of conversation hanging between them.
“What about you,” said Evie, “do you want to talk about leaving?”
Dana took a deep breath.
“I left in the middle of the night. My boyfriend was a musician, an obsessive. For months he’d been working on a music project about my heartbeat.”
“Was. Is he any good?”
“Sort of good, but more successful than he deserves to be. He called me his muse.” She paused, drumming her fingers on the armrest.
“He’s recording an album at the moment. People will hear it on the radio and never imagine that it’s the work of a possessive, controlling man. There’s tracks on there about me.”
A tear escaped down Dana’s cheek, Evie’s eyes welled up.
“But what I can’t believe,” Dana said, “is that I’m sitting next to someone with an octopus trap for a heart”.
Evie was happy to change the subject.
“Yeah. These long hauls! You never know who you’ll meet. On the way to Italy I sat next to a woman who used to be Prince Harry’s nanny. Now there’s a guy who could use an early warning system.”
Dana laughed, running her fingers beneath her eyes, checking for smudged mascara.
“Oh my god, don’t get me started on that interview. I was reading a magazine in the terminal lounge with a piece about Princess Martha of Norway, and her shaman boyfriend. Now that’s a royal drama I can get behind.”
“I read that too. What a family!”
“Did you know that Harry and Martha are 3rd and 4th cousins? I mean broadening that particular gene pool is a great idea but they could have been more discerning.”
“Hard to imagine that any relationship founded on a Gwyneth Paltrow introduction would end well. I guess Shamanism is a big thing in Norway? It’s not all about cod after all.”
Evie laughed. “For sure. It’s never all about cod, is it?”
Dana took out the inflight magazine and flicked through the film selection. She turned back to Evie.
“Some of these films look good. You know, I’m looking forward to my two weeks in MIQ. I’m thinking of it as decompression time.”
“Me too. And if nothing else, it’ll postpone the lectures from my mother about travelling with strange guys for a couple more weeks.”
Evie stifled a yawn, and unwrapped her sleep mask from the plastic sleeve.
“Sorry. Escaping my octopus trap always knocks me out. I better get some sleep.”
“Sleep well. I think I’m going to start with an episode of The Crown.”
Slicing through time zones and clouds under the blanket of night, the plane kept the heartbeats of every soul on board. Those that had been trapped and now flew free seemed to beat louder than the rest.
About the Authors
Rachel is a Wellington-based writer, who is currently working on her first novel. She has a Master of Arts and an Advanced Diploma in Creative Writing (Whitireia), and enjoys writing about art, dreams and people in transit. Her short stories have been published in 4th Floor Journal, Turbine | Kapohau and the recent 4th Floor anthology A Vase and a Vast Sea.
The opportunity to collaborate on this Write Together project became even more exciting when I read Susan’s recent play Ticket to Ride and got to know her style. Being tasked with creating something from scratch with a writer who is so sharp and witty as Susan (particularly in her dialogue) made for an energising collaborative process.
Susan has been a computer nerd, a teacher, a human rights and union advocate, thesis editor, and a keen volunteer for a range of social justice organisations. Born and raised in Brooklyn New York, she ran her own hammock business in the depths of Alphabet City and briefly typed toe tags in a police morgue before fulfilling a dream she’d held since she was seven and moving to New Zealand. Susan is drawn to writing about characters and stories where the simplicity of their lives hides an irony, and the story emerges from a relentless paring down of unimportant, arguable details to a seemingly simple and yet intricate retelling of a moment; including a glimpse into the complex lives of passersby that may or may not have have importance to their own.
She is currently working on a collection of braided short stories exploring the lives of a group of friends and strangers against the backdrop of excerpts from fictional diaries of people who are drawn to Elon Musk’s strange obsession with colonising a planet even more inhospitable than our own.
When she is not writing, or editing, she can be found walking the hills around Wellington’s wild south coast with an assortment of well-loved dogs and a camera or two, quilting, or procrastinating about the never-ending weeding needed in her too-big garden.
The opportunity to write collaboratively appealed especially after Rachel shared some of her beautifully descriptive writing. Our project looks at moments of intersections that can be measured in heartbeats.