I met Law on a day like all the other days. I noticed him first because he was young, and second because his eyes were the greenest I’d ever seen when he looked up to say—can you do me a soy cappuccino?
Most of our customers wandered here from Red Nest Retirement Village down the road, so Law stuck out like a straight, long stem in a garden of wilted flowers.
He appeared in the same spot by the window every Monday and Thursday and looked from his laptop to the street, laptop to street, laptop to street—like there was endless inspiration in the bitumen and boutique clothing stores and sporadic clumps of passersby. I couldn’t see what he saw.
It was a Thursday morning in April when the incident occurred. There were a few oldies in the café and then there was Law, sitting pensively in the place I’d come to see him even when he wasn’t there.
I was tipping froth into a latte when I saw Law press away from his table. My eyes shot back down as he passed me on his way to the men’s room. His laptop was closed and I wondered if it showed that he trusted me, leaving it unattended.
Setting the glass on a saucer with a spoon, I moved around the counter to deliver it to Mrs Big Ears, who I’d so named for obvious reasons. Before I reached her, I snuck a glance at Law’s table. The laptop was gone.
A man was passing the window outside, the café door clamping shut behind him. He had been in for lunch, he hadn’t paid, and more notably—Law’s laptop was wedged under his arm.
I dropped the latte and it slopped over my hand, but I hardly felt it. I burst outside and charged at the laptop thief, who, to his and my detriment, couldn’t move much faster than I could walk, which meant I couldn’t stop myself from barrelling into him.
We both crashed to the pavement. I took the brunt of the fall, and in hindsight that was probably for the best, as I’m sure if it had been him the impact would’ve shattered his rickety bones to death.
“What in God’s name—” the man tried to roll away, grunting with the effort. My head throbbed and I couldn’t draw in enough air.
“I—I’m sorry, sir—you—the laptop—” I dragged myself to sitting. My elbows stung but again I hardly felt it. My eyes were glued to Law’s laptop, upside down nearby the man’s feet. With wobbly knees, he pressed himself to standing.
The café door flew open behind the man and into the street shot Law, looking frantically right to left, to me, still strewn inelegantly across the concrete.
“Althea!” The old man exclaimed to no one in particular. “Althea told me, she did! Althea told me to call the boys today, through the computer,” he said, rubbing his face. “She doesn’t know how.” He looked at me again and light came into his eyes. “Are you alright, love? There’s blood on your arm.”
I peered down at my elbows. One in particular was ripped raw with red beads growing across the flaky skin.
“Shit.” It was the first word I’d heard from Law that wasn’t in reference to a cappuccino. I wished it had been a different word. He came over and lifted me to my feet. My ankle was sore and I sunk down instantly. “Oh shit,” Law said again. He grabbed my waist and hoisted me up so that my bung ankle could hang above the ground. “You’re bleeding.”
Maybe it was due to my daze from striking the concrete, but I felt as though I was dreaming; Law’s strong arm coiled around me like a vice, the upturned laptop, the strange old man shaking his head beside us like he’d stepped into a room and forgotten why he was there.
“Althea. She told me to find it,” said the old man, pressing his lips together so the wrinkles smoothed out. Law touched the man’s shoulder with his free hand.
“It’s okay, mate. Are you hurt?”
The man looked absently at Law, then blinked and shook his head. “No son, nothing hurt on me, nothing hurt.”
“Do you live down at Red Nest?” Law asked.
“Uh, yes. Yes, Red Nest.”
“Okay.” Law sighed and nodded. “Why don’t you head back over there? It’s a good day for a walk, isn’t it?”
The man looked at his hands and hesitated. “Red Nest, yes. I’ll tell Althea. I’ll tell her the boys will visit tomorrow instead. Tomorrow would be better.”
Law and I watched the man in silence as he made his precarious way along the street.
“Should we help him?” I asked.
“Nah.” Law adjusted his grip on me. “He’ll be right. It’s not far.” I wasn’t so sure, but after Law bent for his laptop, I let him take me inside the café.
“I hope it isn’t broken,” I said.
“Nah, don’t stress. It’ll be fine.” He was talking about the laptop. I was talking about my ankle.
My manager Kell told me I could finish for the day. After sitting me down, Law told me his name. I asked what it was short for, and when he said Lawson my cheeks flamed because I realised there weren’t many other names it could’ve been.
He checked me over and gently pressed his fingers to my ankle, asking if it hurt. I only ever thought he’d be asking me for soy milk.
“Thank you,” Law said. “If you hadn’t spear-tackled that old bastard I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
“He wasn’t a bastard!” But I was laughing. “He was just confused.”
Law’s eyes grew wide and a smile turned his lips. “I think it was just an act.”
I giggled and he pulled up his laptop, breathing out a sigh as the screen came to light. He had dark hair that curled at his temples, almost into his eyes.
After a few deep breaths through my nose I pressed through the ice—“What are you working on?”
“I write for this online magazine,” Law told me without looking up. “Best Of Melbourne—kinda thing. Best events, best restaurants, best cafes, a reflective piece here and there.” His eyes skimmed across his laptop like he was reading while talking, like he was two places at once.
“I wouldn’t call this café the best in Melbourne,” I said.
“No. But it’s a good place to relax while I write.” His eyes flickered to mine. “At least I thought so before today.” I wasn’t sure how much weight the comment held. Was he angry I hadn’t been watching his laptop more closely?
“Hey, someone has to feed the crims,” I told him, and he laughed, and I expelled a breath of relief.
When I eventually tried standing, pain shot through my ankle. I visualized Law helping me to my car, and then it happened just as I saw it in my head. He insisted. When we reached the parking lot, he hesitated. We both seemed to realise at the same moment that I was in no state to drive. Or at least my ankle wasn’t.
Law’s car smelt like cigarettes and cologne. Papers were strewn everywhere, some spilling out from files and others loose, or scrunched into balls.
He didn’t apologise for the mess. We both just sat in it together as if pretending the chaos was part of the stitching. Or maybe it was just me pretending.
“Do you mind?” he asked, but the cigarette was already glowing orange, and he puffed out once before I could answer.
“No.” Again I pretended.
His white arms were thin but lean under the rolled sleeves of his shirt. I stared at them out the corner of my eye, thinking of what I might say next, wondering what it meant that he was willing to drive me home.
Being around Law was an endless game of thinking and wondering.
He drove me home and when I was inside I missed the smell of his car, even though I’d always hated smoking.
Law’s apartment was on the outskirts of the city, where all the graffiti and hipsters congregated in a whirl of coloured paint and hair and dilapidated brick and ripped jeans.
It was a Sunday afternoon. He had said around three. It was three on the dot. I waited at the base level of his building for two minutes extra before setting off up the chipped stairs.
“You found me,” Law said when he opened the door, as if my appearance was a surprise. He was smiling wider than I’d seen before, wearing his standard white shirt that drooped loose over his shoulders.
“Eventually,” I replied nervously. I opened my mouth to tell him how difficult it was to find a park—then quickly closed it.
He led me inside a narrow den of peeling paint, bohemian rugs and strewn papers. My shoulders could almost touch both walls in the entryway. It opened to a small lounge and kitchen; here it smelt like smoke and sweet flowers. Flowers? I scanned the room, spotting a string of dried jasmine dangling from an exposed light bulb.
“You gotta let me make you a coffee,” said Law, already starting on it. “Since you’ve been making mine for like, five months.” It was seven.
“Thanks, I’d love one.” The word love spun in my head and chest and I felt suddenly ridiculous.
“Feel free to sit,” he said with his back to me.
I visited Law’s little den every weekend. In the past I would read my book at night. I would read fast and devour pages like chips, one after the other and mostly science fiction. But with Law around, even when he wasn’t around, I read less.
On the fourth weekend—we kissed. He didn’t own a television, so we were on the couch and he was reading part of an article he wrote on this trap music festival far too trendy for my taste. He stopped midway and looked at me. Then he took my face in his hands and kissed me, a fluctuating melody of hard and gentle.
He lit me up just as he did his cigarette, with cavalier ease and hands that knew what they were doing.
Two weeks later his hands didn’t stop, they kept going and I let them. Law was perfect. I never wanted him to stop touching me. Even when I got home I could feel his skin imprinted on mine.
“Brad’s having this thing Sunday,” Law told me once I’d finished my Thursday shift. He leaned against the body of his car and drew from his cigarette. He didn’t turn his head when he breathed out; the smoke just clouded the space between us. Sometimes I worried that when it cleared he wouldn’t be there.
I wanted to ask what thing, and was he going? And was this my invitation? “Cool,” I said, pressing my hands to the arch of my back.
We looked at everything but each other.
I sat beside Law, not with him. He was pressed forward, elbows locked together on the table. His arm was a high wall between us. When he laughed he covered his face with his hands, laughing into them and not into me.
His friends swung between each other like there was an elastic band connecting them all and it wasn’t long enough to reach me.
“You been with Law long?” a guy across from me asked. We hadn’t interacted much but I’d counted his beers. Seven.
“Uh, we—” I stopped. It felt like a question with no right answer. “Not long,” I said, smiling. The guy, whose name I thought might’ve been Will, nodded and gulped to the end of seven.
Law and I were the first to leave. We got back to the den and he made himself a coffee.
“I sometimes wonder about that guy who took your laptop,” I admitted. “That old man. He kept going on about Althea, remember? Some woman named Althea. I assume she was his wife. Or is. Who knows? Maybe she really did ask him to take the laptop.”
“Maybe.” Law lowered his mug and pulled out a cigarette from the packet in his coat pocket, lighting it up with the white barrel between his teeth. The cloud appeared between us.
All Law’s words were emptied into his articles—the best festivals, the best cafes, the best restaurants—when he finished typing there was nothing left. Sometimes I caught myself thinking that maybe if I was the Best Of something he’d have room for me.
We were static—bound to a splinter of time I was scared to lose and he was scared to remove.
He was everything. He was silk curls, dark eyelashes and linen shirts past my thighs. He was the smell of fresh coffee and jasmine and of smoke tingling in my nostrils. He was smooth hands learning my body, quick wit when I didn’t expect it, and a smile that would never crack on demand. He was all I could want, and then he wasn’t.
I dreamed his best parts. I dreamed them constantly. When I woke it was with a pinch, but I never let it show.
When I invited Law for dinner at my tiny brick house—though not as tiny as the den—he walked inside with an inscrutable expression.
I lived alone. “My family are still in Perth,” I explained.
“You all get along?” He sat down in front of the television. The couch was low to the ground and his sharp knees came right up.
I sat next to him, smelling musky cologne. “Yeah we do. I visit them a few times every year. I just wanted to jump out of the nest, I guess. If I stayed in Perth through my twenties I’d never leave. And I’ve always loved Melbourne. We used to come here for—”
“You know Melbourne’s been voted the most livable city for like seven years in a row,” he said. “I’ve heard Perth is a bit of a … hole.”
“Oh, it’s not quite that bad. I mean when I was a kid—”
“It’s the kind of place you might visit, you know. Might. But live? Not really my flavour.”
“Yeah,” was all I could think to say. I really did love Perth. If Law was sent to Perth to write Best Of articles, maybe he would too.
We ordered pizza and watched an episode of this zombie show, but it was too scary for me. I didn’t like gore or excessive violence without adequate reason.
“They only do this for the shock factor,” I told Law as a zombie tore into an innocent man in an alley. The light from the TV was gleaming in his wide, green eyes.
“Of course they do,” he replied. When he didn’t look at me, I turned back; more blood, more screaming, a chunk of innocent flesh soaring into the night sky.
I shifted my eyes to the framed photograph beside the TV—my little brother and I in Perth with our arms slung around each other—and I watched it till the show was over.
“It’s in Sydney,” he said. I untied my apron and tucked it under the counter. He leaned across it, fiddling with a chocolate shaker. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. “Perry?” He barely ever said my name, so the sound of it kicked my eyes up to meet his.
“Okay,” I said.
Law had been offered a job—Head Editor for a cultural arts magazine. In Sydney.
“It’s an incredible opportunity, you know. I just feel like I’d be stupid not to take it.”
“But you love your job.”
“Yeah, but I reckon I’d prefer editing.”
“Producing content twenty-four-seven can be a drainer. I think this would be good for me.”
“Well okay,” I said, grabbing my backpack and moving for the door. When he didn’t reply I turned back. “It’s your decision Law. I’m sure you’ll do whatever you want to do without my permission.”
“I’m not asking your permission.”
His words slapped at me but I just said, “Exactly.” I pushed the door open and he followed me out.
“What can I say? Tell me what I can say.” He raised his arms and dropped them. There were hundreds of answers to the question. They’d built up in dreams, layer over layer, ever since I’d met him that first day when he sat by the window and asked about the soy milk. What can I say? I knew that even if I told him, he never would say it.
The window seat was empty from early December. I waited for him to call but he didn’t.
We’d spent the night together before he left. The memories of our bodies and his hands and the hair falling into his face, wet at the roots—I wished I could reach into my mind and pluck them all out like weeds.
I met Asher at an old school friend’s twenty-fifth birthday. He distributed the cake. Full and tall, his face opened when he smiled. His eyes were a deep brown, and they opened too. After some trivial small talk, he asked me to dinner Saturday night.
At seven I heard his car pull up, when he said he would.
We bought fish and chips and sat on the sand with the paper laid out between us. We spoke about our families. He asked about Perth and I told him all the very best bits.
“Some people think it’s a hole over there,” I said to him. “But it’s not. It’s really not.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “I’ve always wanted to check it out.”
Seagulls hung above us, suspended like vultures. Asher threw a chip in an attempt to send them away, but the birds took it as a free pass. From the frenzied swarm, one seagull dove inches over Asher’s head and he shrieked. A splotch of bird poo appeared on the remaining chips and Asher sprung to his feet, dusting his hands.
“Well, that’s great,” he said. “Not exactly how I’d planned for this to go.”
But it was perfect.
Asher took me home and kissed my cheek at the front door. We laughed about the seagulls again. He hugged me and his body was warm and there was enough of it.
I read my book for an hour that night and set it down to sleep. I smiled to myself, remembering Asher’s face as the birds swooped him. My chest bubbled and a snort came out. It wasn’t anything I would think to dream up. It was far better.